Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 18 January 2014

Low IQs and bad gaffes

The e-tolls saga rages on, one and a half months since going live. The initial lobby for non-payment remains vocal, reminding us of how taxes from the 70s and 80s were used to pay for these highways and citing government’s lack of consultation as the cause for non-compliance. But as text messages and invoices are reaching drivers, the prospect of prosecution for failure to pay a few hundred rands has given rise to a new narrative: SANRAL’s supposed administrative bungles in facilitating compliant drivers’ payments. That was the reason why I asked Sanral's spokesperson, Vusi Mona, and Chair of the Justice Project SA, Howard Dembovsky, to join me for a chat on 702/567 Talk at Nine.

Within the context of ten-year-olds being threatened, via text message, with legal action and prosecution for not paying their hefty R280 e-toll bills (My advice? Stop stealing dad’s car, or at least use alternate routes) where users report difficulties with paying though the website and call centres as well as difficulties with over-the-counter payments at the banks, I thought that it would be valuable to have a discussion for compliant, willing-to-pay road users.

As with most contentious issues in South Africa, it was an important discussion to have as there is so much conjecture going around that most of us, including myself, are confused. From claims that SANRAL is in contravention of the National Credit Act, to text messages not being a legal means of payment demand, to prominent people volunteering their martyrdom as the first to be prosecuted for non-payment, people that just want to get from one point to the next on our highways are left in a limbo of confusion.

So what does one do in that situation? The obvious and responsible thing was to get vocal and informed civil society to explain our legal rights. These are the guys that spend their time trolling through layers and layers of legislation and who actually understand what I, as a user, should expect in demand of payment. Also essential to the conversation would be SANRAL, the guys who want payment as soon as possible.

After about twenty minutes of chatting to Howard Dembovsky, Chair of the Justice Project SA, Vusi Mona, spokesperson from SANRAL, finally joined us. People called with their questions and between the two of them I tried to facilitate a coherent, balanced, informed response.

As a talk radio presenter I believe that my job is to elicit a point of view and challenge the purveyor of said opinion to substantiate; and my efforts were largely successful up until I read what I thought was a reasonable text message question from a listener. If you own a mobile phone I am pretty sure that at some point your number was drawn as the winning number in some international lottery you never entered, let alone heard of. Of course, if you claim your winnings, you might have to wait into perpetuity whilst forking out tens, if not hundreds of thousands in an effort to claim it.

So with a prevailing scam culture it is only reasonable for a listener to want to know how text messages from SANRAL can be identified as legitimate and not some 411 scam. Vusi’s response: “Very easy. Raise your IQ a little bit.” He went on to say that you should contact the call centre, the very same one many people report as unreachable, if you suspect these text messages to be fishy (or is that “phishy”?). Either way, he let the cat amongst the pigeons as Dembovsky dug into him, winning the public relations war immediately, telling Mona he had no right to treat the South African public as idiots. Whether Mona directed this at all users of these highways I cannot confirm, but this is what came of his short, silly comment:

SANRAL and government have been accused of acting dictatorially. Many, if not most e-tolled road users feel that they were not sufficiently consulted and a victory in court does not automatically grant you victory in the hearts and minds of citizens. Since some have conceded and wish to pay, courtesy is a highly appreciated rare commodity in exchange for what the public views as a grudge payment. So you will not win the support, hearts or minds of people by continuing to act as what can only be perceived as a bully when you kick a man/woman whilst they are down.

It was a sincere and legitimate question, not in opposition to e-tolling, but simply seeking assurance that notifications are protected and that the money gets filtered to the correct sources. Telling someone that they are stupid for asking this question and placing the onus on them to enquire with the call centre at the receipt of every text for using the tolled highways, is not just poor customer service, it is impractical. Imagine you had to call your bank’s call centre every time you received a transactional text message. It would be chaotic; the reason why it doesn’t happen is because these private entities that tend to understand that you are the client and that you are actually paying them, treat you with enough respect to ensure that there are tell-tale signs that the text comes from them. Whether it is the mobile number from which the number is sent, a reference number or wording, I innately know that this is a text from my bank.

Whether it be Mona, or any other spokesperson in the public service, they need to realise that you and I as citizens are their clients and in as much we do not want our unmentionables kissed, we want to be treated with courtesy, especially when compliant. As a spokesperson you are the face and voice of government and your arrogance, perceived or not, translates into the arrogance of government. With a surge in unpopularity toward government, your job in essence is to reclaim that popularity by endearing yourself to the public. Mona’s gaffe on 15 January clearly failed in that department.

I still have no strong feelings in favour of or against e-tolls, but it seems that government prefers to use the stick rather than the carrot and that perception has been endorsed by a snappy spokesperson. Government should use the stick, especially when we don’t comply, but if the stick, or threats of its use, is used too often, the mule will remain unmoved, which is undesirable for all involved.

So was Mona’s gaffe passed in mirth, and is Dembovsky’s call for his resignation justified? Again, I am unimpassioned on both questions, but you simply don’t make jokes of that nature as spokesperson; after all, you are not speaking in your own capacity. You are the personality, or lack thereof, of government. DM


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