Opinionista John Clarke 7 April 2014

e-Tolls: A new departure in fiascos

When Sanral Chief Financial Officer Inge Mulder reiterated the threat to e-toll refuseniks that they could be thrown into jail if they did not pay their e-toll by the end of April, my mind wandered back to two watershed moments in history.

The first happened in 1895, the Jameson Fiasco. Historians imprecisely call it a ‘raid’, but since it ended before it began, but had massive ramifications, it is more fitting to call it a fiasco. Their mission, conspired between Cape Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, the American mining engineer John Hays Hammond and Jameson, was supposed to reinforce the aggrieved locals (the uitlanders) who were supposed to have been under siege after having supposedly mobilised against the injustices of President Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaanse Boer Republic. The hapless raiders, under the command of Dr Leander Starr Jameson, were intercepted before they could reach Johannesburg. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the Joburg residents, including my great-grandfather, had about as much enthusiasm for joining an armed insurrection than they had for paying tolls. It was a spectacular flop. The ringleaders were arrested and thrown into jail (including Frank Rhodes, the brother to the Cecil John, as well as the hapless Hammond).

Mark Twain happened to be in Johannesburg at the time. Historian Robert Kinloch Massie amusingly informs us that “[o]ne day while Hammond was languishing in prison and his supporters were haggling on a price that might buy his freedom, Mark Twain dropped by. Twain chatted with the prisoners, inspected the jail, and spoke to reporters about his visit. When the reporters asked about the conditions, Twain joked that compared to the Nevada mining camps, Hammond’s prison was luxurious. The facilities were so attractive, Twain continued, that he was considering taking advantage of them to rest his nerves and seek relief from his creditors. The South African reporters, not familiar with Twain’s brand of humour, dutifully printed his remarks, which produced an outcry in the Afrikaner press and a sudden increase in the severity with which the prisoners were treated.”

With this in mind I joked with my family that perhaps I should hand myself over for arrest for not paying my e-toll, to seek the comfort of a Pretoria gaol to rest my nerves as a relief from the endless stream of emails from Johannesburg and Pretoria residents complaining about the injustices of e-tolls. I roughed out a statement that explained exactly why I believed e-tolls were unjust. For added impetus, I was going to say something like “President Zuma, if you believe yourself to be unjustly accused over Nkandla, join me in putting our respective cases before the courts of law, instead of undermining the rule of law to escape a just verdict.”

The second watershed moment of history occurred in August 1988, when 143 conscientious objectors gathered in a campaign orchestrated by the End Conscription Campaign to refuse to obey any further military call-ups to the whites-only SADF. I was one of them, egged on by the civil courage of the likes of Ray Hartley, Paul Verryn, Richard Spoor, Hugh Gosnell, David Bruce, Chippie Olver, Jonathan Shapiro, Don Edwards, Rob Goldman, Pete Sadie, Laurie Nathan and all the others. When I first met Zwelinzima Vavi a few months ago, I asked him how significant that conscientious protest action was. “Very. It was the beginning of the end of the Apartheid regime”, he said.

In truth, it was the forerunners who actually did get arrested and spent years in jail that started the process of change. Charles Bester, Peter Moll, Richard Steele, David Bruce, Charles Yeats; they were the pioneering conscientious objectors.

Remembering these two watershed moments served as spurs to prick both sides of my intent to present myself at Randburg police station to blunt the unconscionable threats that Sanral’s Inge Mulder had repeated to induce users to pay their e-tolls. But before my legal advisor could get back to me, two things happened to render my impulsive fit of civil courage unnecessary.

Firstly, on John Robbie’s morning breakfast show on Talk Radio 702, a business owner called in to report that he had already presented himself for arrest for the ‘crime’ of not paying his e-toll. However, he reported to listeners that when the desk constable called his Captain, bemusement turned to amusement. The Captain smiled, saying he wasn’t the first, and that he should simply follow the others and “go away”.

Secondly, another conscientious objector surfaced to convince me that it would be premature to un-shoot Sanral’s bolt. The man had been called upon by the authorities to repay a vast sum of money that had been spent on his residence for improvements that he that he had asked them to make. He felt it unjust to be expected to pay for them. “I didn’t ask for them, so why should I pay for them?” He implied that he had no say in the matter, so why should he pay?

User must say before user will pay. And so say all of us.

The proudly e-toll free Twitterverse shot back with lightning speed. “We didn’t ask for them, so why should we pay for them?” It hardly seemed necessary to stir the conscience of society to refuse to resist the injustice of e-toll law, given the president’s utterances.

Political commentators, cartoonists and critics alike are all, of course, highly skeptical of President Zuma’s claims that he had no say about what he was now objecting to paying for. Nevertheless, the principle holds good as an abstract ideal. I doubt whether Sanral Executives would disagree with it. Their dispute with OUTA is to insist Gauteng motorists DID have their say back in 2007 and 2008 when our freeways were declared to be pay-ways by Minister Jeff Radebe, then Minister of Transport.

To crown the week, another mysterious synchronicity manifested itself to confirm that it would have been silly to have sought imprisonment to escape the endless stream of cries of e-toll casualties groaning on the battlefield. First came the news over the radio around 11.30am that Zwelinzima Vavi had won his High Court case to have his suspension as Cosatu General Secretary lifted. An hour later, in the midst of drafting a congratulatory media release on behalf of OUTA, I was interrupted by a message from someone well placed within the criminal justice system to ask if OUTA was aware of the judgement of “State vs. Smit by Deputy Judge President Mojapelo regarding ‘consultation’ when a toll road is declared”, advising that “it may be useful in the fight against Sanral.”

I was aware of the judgment, but had never gone into the details. A quick Google to find out more about Judge Mojapelo yielded as the very first item on the list “Judge Mojapelo rules in Vavi’s favour”.

What? The same judge? I had neglected to take note of who had handed down the judgment. Hence OUTA’s media release which notes the common ground between the two.

I hope that when Zwelinzima Vavi arrives back at work, Cosatu will see between the lines of Judge Mojapelo’s judgment an invitation to unite around their Secretary General to put a prompt end to the e-toll fiasco, lest it turn out to be for the country what the Jameson Fiasco proved to be for Cecil John Rhodes. DM

John GI Clarke is OUTA’s joint spokesperson.

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