Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 5 December 2013

E-toll defiance hasn’t failed – it’s barely started

Recently, questions and statements have arisen to insinuate that e-tolling’s launch has signalled the end or a failure of the defiance campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. Defiance campaigns against irrational laws such as the Dompas and others throughout history did not result in the required change of heart by the authorities on the first day, week or month of resistance, did they?

Such campaigns are journeys, and the displays of civil courage take time to gather momentum, until a sufficient volume of society, aggrieved by the irrationality of a policy, begin to slow the system down and make it unworkable.

Until the past week, there has been no real opportunity for defiance. There have been a number of court challenges, marches, drive-slows and talk shops. These are the so-called ‘sparring sessions’, a postulation of position from both sides of the ring. In reality, defiance only starts when the bell sounds and the showdown begins. That’s when the true colours are nailed to the mast (or windscreen) and when the people are able to truly express their opinion.

Let’s face it, e-tolling systems do work in many parts of the world, but there is a general formula for these successes. They work in environments where the authorities have garnered the involvement, support and trust of the people through a meaningful and transparent public engagement process from the initial planning stages through to implementation. In addition, their success requires low costs of administration and collection of tolls (international benchmarks between five and 10%) and where tariffs are acceptable. These factors, if realised, generally ensure high levels of compliance from the launch (over 90%) and are, more often than not, sustainable over time.

In the case of Sanral’s e-toll debacle, virtually all the required elements were severely lacking. Transparency and public engagement was dismal and when coupled with the high tariffs and costs of collection (closer to 29% as opposed to Sanral’s claim of 17%), plus foreign company enrichment, it’s no wonder they are up against a tsunami of resistance. For these reasons they have entered the launch period with a questionable, but dismal number of 800,000 tags sold, which incidentally is less than 35% of the 2,3 million monthly freeway users. This is nothing short of a disaster for them and has necessitated a program of ‘calculated intimidation tactics’ from Sanral, with threats of summonses, criminal charges, bad debt listings, etc., in an attempt to coerce the public to tag up. And while these tactics may even add another few hundred thousand to their list, this will still be no more than 50% of freeway users at best, which is far from enough, sending a massive signal of success for the campaign of defiance.

What essentially happens in this scenario is that in a short while, the half paying for the tolls begin to realise the other half are getting away with it and are succeeding in their defiance. The once tagged then begin to ‘tag-down’, one by one they join resistance, tilting the scale against Sanral’s plan. The collection process then becomes far too costly to manage, eventually sending the authorities back to the drawing board. Sanral and their advisors realise this is a serious problem for them and their strategists are hard at work to hatch schemes to entice the untagged to come over, through a combination of ‘carrot and stick’ tactics.

The million and more Gauteng road users who have exercised civil courage to date will probably hold their ground and not fall for the shallow tactics and misinformation about the climbing numbers as espoused by Sanral. Despite a few expected queues at some of their centers during the first week of operation, the stay-away has been massive. E-tag counts of windscreens in car parks across the region are currently being undertaken and becoming a meaningful research exercise to verify the public’s suspicion of Sanral’s misleading information on the e-tag penetration rate, further boosting their civil courage and defiance against the unjust system.

So tolling has started and yes, a few hundred thousand citizens have tagged up, many forced to do so under ‘corporate fleet’ instructions. This merely drags the campaign of defiance on for several months longer, that’s all. Against this backdrop, e-tolling of Gauteng’s freeways will never be sustainable. Those who have tags did so under duress and the active citizens who didn’t, will remain resilient and sufficient in numbers to get the job done. They will proudly look back one day and say – “I remained untagged and was part of defiance campaign that stopped government’s irrational and unjust e-toll plan.”

It’s not a matter of if, but when the e-toll system in Gauteng will be scrapped. DM

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