Opinionista John Clarke 20 October 2014

Behind the Irony Curtain: How SANRAL sparked an ‘upwising’ over e-tolls

Before the e-toll gantries went live a year ago, Max du Preez opined, “If I were living in Gauteng, I would have bought my e-tag and paid for my usage of the province’s toll roads… It took guts to order the hugely unpopular system to start just a few months before next year’s highly contested general elections. Our government is not known for doing anything that could be unpopular in its primary constituency during election time.” It is not likely to do so ever again. The impact of e-tolls been so pervasive that one cannot imagine South African politics ever been the same again. SANRAL is unwittingly serving to invert the political pyramid so that higher levels of the political hierarchy have been forced to serve, rather than dominate and manipulate, the lower levels - so that local destinies will in future be decided locally. It is called “subsidiarity” and is the only way to go if our politics is to recover the path to deepening democracy.

“The evolution is upon us. It’s time for an upwising. It is time to overgrow the system from the grassroots up.”

Swami Beyondananda (US satirist and comedian)

It has been another interesting week on the e-toll front. And for the cause of democracy. I hope my friend Mark Heywood takes heart. I dedicate this to him, to cheer him up after his last, rather pessimistic article.

On Friday at 6.00 am my radio alarm clock woke me up with an Eye Witness News report on the planned mass protest that Cosatu and OUTA were organising against e-tolls. Before the radio crackled to disturb my slumber I was having a Martin Luther King-type dream in which the gantries were being carried away by flocks of the particular bird species after which each had been named. The Gauteng freeways yielded them willingly. The flocks congregated to fly in a south-easterly direction headed for KZN to be reinstalled in the roads leading to Nkandla. In my dream I then visualised President Zuma’s friends, family and curious tourists participating in an innovative scheme to pay off his debt whenever they visited him. Their e-tags that would bleep to signal the transfer of money from their bank accounts to a designated fund for the improvement of rural roads and urban public transport.

It was weird to have a pleasant dream disturbed by the rude broadcast of one’s own voice urging Minister Dipou Peters “to do the obvious thing and to switch off the artificial life support system. The e-toll system is brain dead”.

At our joint media conference last Thursday our COSATU partners liked the morbid metaphor and proceeded to get the National Union of Woodworkers affiliate to make a mock coffin inscribed “RIP e-tolls” which was duly cremated on Saturday together with e-toll bills outside SANRAL’s HQ. (Before the press conference we had joked about another idea: renaming all gantries “Albatross”, but decided to save that for another day.)

On Sunday Hogarth quipped, “Finding an ANC politician who supported the imposition of e-tolling in Gauteng is as near impossible as finding someone who voted for the Nats.”

Earlier in the week the M&G’s Qaanitha Hunter had reported, “It was difficult to differentiate between submissions made on Tuesday by the ANC in Gauteng to the e-toll review panel, and submissions made in court by opposition parties, including the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA)” adding, “But it is ironic that the Gauteng proposal is identical to ones challenged and opposed by the ANC-led national government.”

Ironic? As in “happening in a way contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this”.

Not if one has been privileged to be at work behind the scenes to forge relationships between stakeholders from the left, right and centre (whether they were for or against e-tolling) to promote inclusive centripetal forces to counter-balance the divisive centrifugal forces that the urban e-toll controversy was exerting.

Had SANRAL prudently activated centripetal forces of inclusive participatory consultation processes before embarking on the high risk Gauteng Open Road Tolling scheme, when election season came around the centrifugal forces of party political contestation would have had to find other issues to contest and other vectors upon which to float their election campaigns. Because SANRAL failed to engage in consultation long before elections came around it was inevitable that e-tolling would became a critical election issue. The issue was further complicated because, having failed to consult them, voters then had two interconnected issues riding on their voting decision: “Are e-tolls a just way of generating revenue for road infrastructure?” and “Why was I not given the chance to make up my mind about that before the gantries went up?”

In the course of OUTA’s close listening to the experience of ordinary people, it has been quite remarkable to discover just how few of them believed e-tolling was just and equitable. Nobody felt that stakeholders had been given sufficient information or a fair opportunity to influence the decision before it was made. This was true even for many people who had decided to tag-up and pay. In fact some of OUTA’s most loyal support came from users from all party affiliations who, because of personal circumstances, had grudgingly complied. We were surprised by the number of negatively compliant people who contacted us. Negative compliance is not a sound foundation upon which a so-called “intelligent transport system” can ever be built, no matter how many laws are passed to enforce it or threatening fingers wagged by government leaders.

Another good friend, Denis Beckett, has found a precise term that I think describes very well the deeply felt unanimity that now prevails against e-tolls: “consentience”. He uses it to describe the foundation upon which “Democracy V. 2.1” (or what he now terms “Demogarchy” in his latest book) will be built. Consentience means a “unity of consciousness without regard to intellect”, a shared gut feeling that has not yet evolved into verbal conceptualisation. In my recent book The Promise of Justice, I suggested another definition which Denis liked: “a fusion of conscience and consent”.

Unfortunately for SANRAL and the Executive (and this bothers Denis terribly) the ‘consentience’ against e-tolling is negatively charged. Consentience ought to be about inspirational plans to ‘light candles’ not angry protestations to ‘curse the darkness’. But when the Public Protector’s final report on Nkandla was firmly lodged as an election issue, sentiments expressed via social media indicated that many e-toll refuseniks felt justified in refusing to pay their bills as a proxy protest against Nkandla, which is not really fair to SANRAL. With ‘Nkandla-gate’ thrown wide open the opening of another gate (‘e-toll gate’), presented problems that went way beyond what the rules and rubrics of representative democracy would be capable of solving.

With this concern in mind, I attended the packed media conference at Luthuli House on 19 March to ask Gwede Mantashe why the ANC didn’t mitigate the damage of Nkandla extravagance by ridding itself of the other albatross – e-tolls. ANC election posters were by then loudly proclaiming the slogan ‘forward into the future together’. “One way of re-uniting Gauteng voters would be to remove e-tolling from that future,” I chimed. “Why doesn’t the ANC scrap them?”

My friends from the DA and EFF were glad they didn’t. Gwede defended e-tolling as a policy issue, and said he didn’t think that e-tolls would hamper the ANC in Gauteng. Everything that has happened since says he was wrong.

Two weeks later Richard ‘Hannibal Elector’ Poplak interviewed Wayne Duvenage and me. He got it. “The e-toll is bigger than your election. Much bigger,” was how his article was headlined. As the bodies of politicians piled from the sharp aim of his serial killing pen, only Wayne Duvenage and I were left standing (oh, so was Kenny Kunene. A humbling thought).

But e-tolls did not only upset the ANC applecart. Before the elections the DA candidate for Gauteng Premier Mmusi Maimane vowed that if the DA won Gauteng they would get rid of e-tolls, despite the fact that SANRAL took its orders from the National Minister of Transport. Deployed as parliamentary leader after the elections, Mmusi dismissed David Makhura’s e-toll review panel for exactly that reason. Fair enough, except that his statement come out within minutes of the Gauteng DA caucus issuing a statement welcoming the initiative and pledging the DA support.

So pervasively has the e-toll saga affected our conceptions about democracy and governance that it ‘externally’ united the two biggest parties at Provincial level while ‘internally’ dividing those same two parties in their relations between their National and Provincial formations.

Here’s how the e-tolls spell hope for South Africa’s democratic evolution.

Healthy, maturing democracies have learned how to integrate the periodic contest for political power during elections with the ongoing process of shaping service delivery and legitimising State authority between elections. The former dynamic constrains the corrupting tendencies of power and prevents absolute power corrupting absolutely. The latter dynamic creates social cohesion and (if our MPs and MPLs take a long-term view) economic prosperity. Both dynamics need to rhythmically dance with one other. The two dynamics are inseparable in the larger scheme of nation building. Ordinary politicians become extraordinary statesmen if they manage to crack the political calculus that enables both the differentiation of representation, and the integration of participation. Until David Makhura suddenly came to prominence to assert leadership against the dictates of Luthuli House, our politicians were all seeming pretty ordinary.

If in the next two years the e-tolling saga continues to play itself out in the same way it has over the past two years, Gauteng voters won’t only be voting for one or the other political party in the upcoming local government elections. Irrespective of which party we choose we could all be voting in expression of a cardinal principle that characterises the most successful and durable democracies, past and present. In shorthand it says local destinies must be decided locally, with higher tiers of governance entirely dedicated to enabling that process to happen. It’s called subsidiarity.

Mark, I know you have a rather jaundiced view of religion. But as Dr Google will explain, the concept of subsidiarity was in fact first articulated by a Jesuit priest and enshrined in Catholic social teaching. But if you are not quite ready to concede that, it’s ok. Having raged against SANRAL as an ‘extractive institution’ for over a decade, I am not quite ready either to thank Nazir Alli for having created the ideal conditions for a national upwising. DM

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