Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 28 January 2014

Sanral – critically out of touch with reality?

Following another successful and peaceful demonstration by thousands of motorcyclists and car owners on Saturday, many read with interest the stark statements made by Sanral CEO Nazir Alli, in which he instructed them to “respect the law and accept e-tolls” and added that “nearly a million people have already registered for e-tags, which shows the system is legitimate.” But these are clear signals of an organisation completely out of touch with the reality on the e-toll saga.

Respect for the law cannot be demanded; it must be earned. The law must be rational and acceptable to the masses expected to apply and obey it. As we saw in our past, irrational laws were driven by placing fear into those who opposed the system and its rules. One senses a similar situation unfolding in the e-toll fiasco and today, where Sanral and the Department of Transport are threatening citizens with “violations processing” and possible criminal charges, whilst a discontented and angry public begin to fight back with civil courage and a overt defiance against the system, compelling and inviting Sanral to summons the transgressors to court, where their shocking oversight of public opinion and input will be exposed.

What the authorities have ignored is that even a democratically elected government does not have the right to do as it pleases and run roughshod over people’s opinions or its own constitutional requirements of meaningful and fair engagement with the public on matters of such significance. Despite the claims by Sanral that the courts have ruled on the matter, quite the contrary is true – they have not ruled on that matter at all. Instead, the courts escaped ruling on Sanral’s inexcusably shocking public engagement process by seizing a technical route within administration law, which enables them not to condone matters for judicial review if brought before the courts after 180 days of the events awareness being made. Where does that leave the public on a matter they refuse to accept?

The sad reality of the situation, even at this late stage, is the authorities’ blinkered approach on the matter. With such overwhelming and obvious chaos, rejection and all the signs of a failing system, they refuse to open their ears, eyes and minds in the direction of their critics, which have swelled beyond the credible faith-based, business, labour and other civil society organisations. Millions of citizens have a well-educated opinion on the matter, despite Sanral’s multi-million rand advertising and propaganda campaign to convince them otherwise.

Our new democracy has never seen a situation of 12,000 objections to government department’s gazette notice, which happened during the November 2012 request for submissions by the Department of Transport. Instead, the Sanral CEO, Nazir Alli, prefers to see this as everyone outside the 12,000 being approvers of the scheme. Similarly, following only 28 responses to an ambiguous advert seeking public opinion in October 2007 (this being Sanral’s formal public engagement process at the time), SANRAL interprets the remaining 3,5 million registered car owners as being in favour of e-tolls, rather than it being a failed approach to gather input from the public and businesses about the scheme.

Why, then, is it that today, we see research conducted by credible companies such as IPSOS and others, combined with numerous petitions and blog polls which point to an outright rejection of the system? Why is it that only one in four cars has an e-tag and research shows that the majority of those (outside government vehicles) who have fitted e-tags, have done so begrudgingly and are not committed to the process? Could it be that by subverting democratic processes and ignoring a constitutional imperative to abide by the democratic will of the people, their subjects have now become active citizens in defiance against a system?

Is this not the backdrop that sparks citizens to see nothing wrong with breaking the law to enforce their rights? Has the public’s opinion now become one of ‘lawlessness [by Sanral] begets lawlessness [by the people]’ and once the law is broken, what are the limits of lawlessness?

One wonders what it will take for the authorities to conduct meaningful engagement with their critics, to establish what is actually going down here and to seek a socially acceptable solution. Will they be prepared to hold a referendum on the matter, to gauge the true input and opinions of the people? Will they be bothered to read the extensive research conducted on why e-tolling fails in many parts of the world, instead of being continuously blinded by Sanral’s own input on the matter?

The questions abound, but none more puzzling than last week’s apologies and acknowledgment by Sanral that the their billing mistakes were more than ‘teething problems’. The issues have instead have now been placed at the door of the poor database information on which they have relied. Surely Sanral didn’t expect e-Natis to be accurate? Surely they didn’t expect the public to willingly rush off and offer their details for billing purposes? Nearly three years after their initial launch date, why is this now an issue? Quite frankly, the billing errors and non-billing problems they face (many freeway users have yet to receive an invoice) expose the unworkability of a system that was planned and designed for a committed public participation therein. They don’t have that and they never will achieve public support under the current circumstances and approach.

The outcome predicted for some time is now looming. The shortfall in Sanral’s revenue targets will point to nothing else but a failed plan and therein the strong possibility of another credit ratings downgrade. And just who will Sanral blame for this? Obviously their critics and opponents of e-tolling, insinuating that without them, the public would have been non-the-wiser and would have simply accepted their unjust, irrational and inefficient means of extracting funds from their pockets for social infrastructure development. Ridiculous, isn’t it? DM

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