South Africa

E-tolls: smoke and mirrors but a luta continua

By Greg Nicolson 6 January 2014

'Show us the invoice!' It might not be the catchiest slogan, but Gauteng motorists have already have a catchphrase for 2014. Before the rollout of e-tolls, many sceptics wanted to wait and see. They didn't want to register, but planned use the tolls, then wait for an invoice, check that it was correct and pay before things got serious. But the SA National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) is trying to scupper those plans. It's pressuring all users to pay up and making it difficult for non-registered drivers to check the facts. The billing problems are just another symptom of a diseased system, say opposition groups. Sanral's more optimistic and just wants (another) chance. By GREG NICOLSON.

According to an SMS from the Violations Processing Centre (VPC), the agency set up to collect outstanding toll fees, Louis Tyler-Scott owed over R600 despite dying in October 2012. Capetonian Louis van Biljon got an SMS saying he owed R87 but hasn’t used the tolled Gauteng highways in 18 months. Thys de Beer’s company Banrep, which has over 800 vehicles it rents to blacklisted clients who can’t get finance, got an SMS saying it incurred R20 000 in e-tolls in a one-week period. Yet after calls to Sanral’s call centre and the VPC, De Beer couldn’t get a detailed invoice to figure out which vehicles incurred what, or where.

Since tolling began on 3 December road users have complained that the billing system is difficult to use and lacks transparency. Civil society groups are taking complaints to launch further action, demanding Sanral to improve billing and in some cases calling for the system to be scrapped.

If e-tolls didn’t already have you frothing at the mouth, an SMS or email calling payment but lacking a proper invoice might do the trick. Anyone who has faced a billing problem in Johannesburg is already sceptical of the system. Tell those people to pay fees for tolls they didn’t want in the first place without showing them exactly how they incurred those costs, add a few well-publicised billing errors, and they’ll give Sanral the middle finger.

Sanral spokesperson Vusi Mona blames opposition groups for stoking the anger. The system is working and anyone with problems should contact Sanral for help, he says. Responding to the pessimists out there, Mona echoed President Jacob Zuma’s comments. “Anyone who is in doubt of our efficiency needs only to the look at the national roads. This is not Malawi, to repeat what the President said.”

We’re not sure what would happen in Malawi, but here’s what seems to be going on:

If you haven’t registered or bought a day pass and don’t pay your tolls within the seven-day grace period, the VPC takes responsibility for collecting the fees and you’ll have to pay higher tariffs. The VPC seems bent on collecting the fees as soon as possible and gets your details from other databases to send an SMS, email or to call you. The idea is that you can then pay online, over the phone, or at a customer service centre.

Sanral must issue an invoice to a non-registered user, but only 32 days after the grace period ends. According to e-Road regulations: “If an alternate user does not pay the toll contemplated in terms of sub-regulation (4) within the time and at the place and subject to the conditions that the Agency may make known and determine, the Agency must within 32 days after the alternate user has used an e-road but after expiry of the grace period and unless the user has registered, send an invoice to the said user, to the last known address provided in terms of the National Road Traffic Act by such user, reflecting the amount of the toll payable and such invoice shall be paid by the said user on or before the date reflected on the invoice.”

In a fact sheet on e-tolls, Justice Project South Africa (JPSA) explains, “Simply put, this means that Sanral must issue and send an invoice to your address registered on eNatTIS within 39 days of you passing under a gantry – which takes into account the seven days ‘grace’ period to pay and the 32 days within which Sanral must invoice you thereafter if you don’t pay within the grace period. You must then be given a reasonable period in which to settle the invoice and these invoices do indeed provide 30 days in which to settle them at a 60% discount.”

JPSA chair Howard Dembovsky, who has become one of the key critics of e-tolls, has spoken out against the early attempt to collect the fees. “So how are we putting the cart before the horse – again – by threatening people with further action when they haven’t even had their 30 days to settle their accounts?”

Why then is Sanral pushing so hard to collect the tolls? One reason could be that it wants to inform drivers as soon as possible of their arrears and help them save costs. More likely, however, the push to collect money from unregistered users relates to timing. The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) predicted that the system would fail if enough people either don’t pay or delay their payments as long as possible. E-tolls, they believe, would collapse under the weight of the system’s bureaucracy. The push to get payments looks like an attempt to collect revenue as soon as possible and register as many undecided drivers as Sanral can.

It’s not teething problems,” said OUTA’s Wayne Duvenage. In December his organisation researched the number of e-tag holders and estimated that only 15% of freeway users, or 350,000 vehicles, have been tagged. Sanral now says 950,000 vehicles have been tagged but Duvenage disputes those figures and says even if 25% of users have got e-tags the system is still doomed. The SMSes and emails are a blatant intimidation tactic, he says, adding that the next Moody’s credit rating on Sanral will indicate whether people believe the organisation’s stance.

Speaking after a long debate with Mona on Talk Radio 702, Dembovsky said the only thing he learned from the conversation is that Sanral continues to fabricate the facts. Mona tried to prove that non-registered users can still pay their fees online but Dembovsky said he tried to navigate the payment site and once again saw that Sanral forces you to register with its system to use the online payment services. Sanral is intimidating road users and using extortion to get them to sign up and pay, said Dembovsky. “They’re actually starting to walk into the smoke and mirrors,” he added, claiming that despite ongoing complaints Sanral simply writes them off as fabrications from opposition groups.

Mona does as good a job as possible of convincing road users that the payment system and the infrastructure behind it works and is legitimate. It’s hard to believe those claims, however, when complaints continue to emerge not about ideological or practical grievances with tolling but SMSes telling deceased and distant residents to pay up.

If anything, the first month of e-tolls in Gauteng have provided new ammunition to challenge the system. Sanral has a debt to pay and Moody’s will offer an indication of whether it believes its efforts are enough. But challenges will also come from other quarters, with OUTA, JPSA, the Democratic Alliance and even the Public Protector likely to continue the fight. DM

Photo:(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)


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