Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 30 September 2013

E-tolling: Prepare for dompas defiance

With the e-toll bill signed into law, e-tolling appears to be an imminent reality. But the signing of a document does nothing to solve the myriad issues that have been brought up around enforcing e-tolls. Will widespread non-compliance bring the whole initiative to a grinding halt?

So there you have it, the “e-toll” bill has been signed into law by the President, amidst a massive outcry from society at large against the system. This action has also been taken while still awaiting an outstanding ruling on the matter in the Supreme Court of Appeal. Furthermore, it ignores a recommendation by the Presidential Commission on the review of State Owned Enterprises, which proposes that social infrastructure “including roads” should rely less on user pays funding and more on general taxes.

With the above factors at play, one wonders what forces have ignited government’s hasty decision, especially after reading reports just a few days earlier that indicated more time would be taken by the President to consider a matter related to the correct tagging of the bill.

More worrying though, is that by simply ticking the regulatory box, the authorities imply that everything will be okay, that e-tolling will now work and that somehow, compliance and acceptance of an irrational policy is automatically guaranteed through the stroke of a pen. History is awash with examples of policy failures due to an ostrich mentality exhibited by governments who believed that legislating unpopular policies could thwart society’s resistance thereto.

No one doubts that compliance to legislation generally prevails in a normal environment where sound and reasonable policies exist. However, in the eyes of the public, e-tolling is neither sound nor reasonable, therefore it is highly likely that it will eventually become unworkable or too costly to manage.

Even in the unlikely event of a fully compliant and tagged-up road user base, the sheer volume of close on 3-million gantry transactions per day will in itself throw a myriad of complications and administrative challenges into the pot. This, however, becomes massively compounded when a large enough section of society believes they are justified to hinder the process, to find loopholes and test its robustness.

But the e-toll system’s problems become almost insurmountable in the short to medium term, when a large enough number of road users simply ignore the system and refuse to pay at all – a result of their resolute justification fed by an arrogant abuse of power by a government who thinks it knows what’s best for citizens.

Comments that rely on the notion that “we are a law abiding society and therefore everyone will come to the party” are an insult to the intellect and position of the people. Like subjects, or lambs to the slaughter, will the people plod forth believing that government is sound in its judgment and policymaking, every time? Generally speaking, we do obey the law – we pay our taxes and get on with our lives, endeavouring to build prosperity in a country which, as the ANC proclaims in its charter, “belongs to all who live in it … and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”.

Well, I’m afraid they’ve lost the plot and the will of the people in the e-toll debacle.

When it comes to testing the laws of human patience with a plan that adds wasteful and unnecessary costs to their over-taxed lives, people become agitated. But when society’s input is ignored and government simply forges ahead with an irrational policy regardless, one should expect resistance and non-compliance, as was witnessed in the defiance campaign against the pass laws and the dompas last century.

Broad-based resistance to government policies is not a situation that a few people can simply wish into being because they alone don’t like the system. Society at large does not desire anarchy and lawlessness in a country they love and have toiled hard to be part of its success.

However, one only needs to look at history to understand the general and collective reactions of a society toward a perceived unjust process. I, for one, do not advocate or propose civil disobedience, as is espoused by some. I merely state repeatedly that history demonstrates these outcomes occur in reaction to the forceful implementation of policies against the will of the people, and all indications point to this happening with e-tolling.

Most remarkable are comments by the authorities that espouse the view that opposition to the e-toll decision is minimal and merely resides with Outa, Cosatu and a few of their cronies. Really? What planet are they living on? This belief displays sheer ignorance and shows how disconnected our government is from the situation on the ground.

But then again, maybe it is I who is the blinkered or ignorant one, so I guess the only way to gauge public sentiment is to measure it. Sadly, on this score government has resisted numerous calls to hold a referendum on this serious issue (not a single one has been held in 20 years of our new democracy) and it appears they are also reluctant (or afraid?) to conduct a credible, transparent and meaningful research exercise on the matter.

Until such time as research proves otherwise, perceptions of wide scale resistance will remain the reality, no matter how much one tries to reason otherwise. One simply cannot ignore the fact that besides Outa and Cosatu, along with their member associations, rejection of the e-toll plan has been displayed by the Black Management Forum (BMF), SA Local Government Association (Salga), the major church bodies, the ANC Youth League, every political party in parliament (barring the ANC) and numerous other entities.

One sincerely trusts the authorities have contemplated the possible unintended consequences of forcing an unpopular and administratively cumbersome program into place. Just as they have ignored the views of their opponents to their plan, perhaps they have ignored these eventualities as well.  If indeed e-tolling is ever implemented, here are some (not all) of the unintended consequences:

  • Increased congestion along the peripheral routes, causing damage, accidents and death in our suburbs, of which there is sufficient research and examples of this behaviour and outcomes related to tolled routes.
  • Cloning of vehicle owner’s license plates by unscrupulous citizens, which will give rise to incorrect billing, queries and frustration for rightful owners. License plate cloning is already a rife in Gauteng and e-tolling will exacerbate this situation. Whether e-tagged or not, the onus remains with the vehicle owner to raise the dispute with Sanral, failing which they must simply pay.
  • The “Owner Pays” design of the system will lead to innocent people being caught in the crossfire of administrative bungling and Sanral’s e-toll police force will deny innocent users their right of passage on the freeways.
  • High levels of non-compliance and civil disobedience, fuelled by a growing resistance to this irrational decision.
  • Higher costs of doing business, to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher food and commodity prices.
  • Increased tariffs to counter the growing levels of non-compliance will further exacerbate resentment and resistance.
  • Further court challenges by citizens and organisations who will have just reasons to do so.

Amidst the ample reasons to criticize the authorities on the e-toll decision, of concern is the behaviour displayed by government towards its critics, not only in this matter but also in many other instances in the past.

There is a mature view that says, “a lot can be learned from one’s critics”, especially when the ratio of criticism outnumbers one’s allies in regard to a specific issue. Instead of casting ones critics aside and treating them with disdain, an introspective and engaging approach might reveal insights that could be valuable and change their plans for the better. “Engaging” in this context requires a genuine desire to listen and explore, as opposed to being an exercise to tick the “we have engaged” box.

Personally, I think a government that embraces and constructively engages with its critics resides in societies and countries where a mature, harmonious and prosperous relationship exists between the authorities and its people. It is a stance that is probably beyond the headspace and ability for our country’s leadership to grasp. They cannot believe that their critics are active and patriotic citizens who are passionate about the success of this nation and that maybe the reasons behind their outrage and dissent are warranted and with merit. DM


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