Opinionista John Clarke 20 January 2015

Would Martin Luther King Jr. buy an e-tag?

Two apparently disconnected major news stories broke last Thursday. In Johannesburg Gauteng Premier David Makhura released the e-Toll Advisory Panel report, and in Hollywood the annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the nominees for the 2015 Oscar awards. Look closely at the content of each story and an exquisite synchronicity emerges. In the “Best Picture” category the Academy named Selma - a film that tells a true story about civil courage and civil disobedience in the face of State injustice. In the e-Toll Report the panel said there was “no justification” for civil disobedience by boycotting e-tolls and that to continue doing so “sets unsustainable precedents and threatens democracy and social cohesion”.

It is fitting that I am finishing this reflection on a day dedicated to commemorate the extraordinary life and witness to truth of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. to the power of non-violent civil disobedience against State-sanctioned injustice and the abuse of power.

If he were still alive, what would he say about the e-Toll Review Panel’s contradictory position of finding that e-tolling was indeed an unjust socio-economic burden on the poorer working class, yet maintain that gross injustice was nevertheless no justification for civil disobedience?

Interestingly, the Civil Rights Struggle in the southern United States also gained critical momentum because of State intransigence in defending an unjust and irrational policy governing an urban transport system. In Montgomery, Alabama, on 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger. When asked by the conductor to move to the back seats of the bus, she decided to sit tight and not move. Her civil disobedience resulted in an arrest and conviction for violating the laws of segregation. Her civil courage sparked the beginning of an episode in US history that gave to the world Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a dream of racial harmony, and now a film that may win the Best Picture Oscar later next month.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” Rosa Parks is quoted in a recent book. “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Compare that with this online comment posted in response to my wordy explanation in Business Day last week, as to why I have taken a conscientious decision to boycott e-tolls as an act of both responsible Christian citizenship and professional social work duty to “challenge social injustice”.

“I agree with your moral conscience comments,” wrote someone anonymously, “and believe that’s why all who are standing strong against the e-tolls, is part of this ‘movement’. I do not agree with the fact that you make such a strong argument regarding your religious and professional ethics. We are all just sick and tired of rolling over and playing dead, to be robbed as with every other ‘taxation’ that is thrown at us.”

I was immediately reminded of Rosa Parks sitting tight – an immovable obstruction that unleashed an irresistible force nearly sixty years ago. Although the US Civil Rights struggle was against racial injustice, the boycott against e-tolls is against economic injustice. Although the two manifestations of injustice have generally gone together for all of human history to date, South Africa’s constitutional values absolutise non-racism. That means that race has no binding legal or economic standing as a category for economic analysis. Every citizen has the same fundamental human rights, and the same fundamental human needs.

A year ago I in fact met ‘Rosa Parks’ by chance at OR Tambo airport. Not the actual person, but a woman who manifested the same archetype of civil courage. Someone who was “tired of giving in”. It was one month after the e-toll gantries had gone live. I was at the airport to meet someone else, and was looking for a newspaper so as to catch up with the latest in the e-toll saga. Business Day seemed the best option on the news stand. Digging deep in my pocket, I remarked casually to the cashier how expensive Business Day had become, adding, “hey, on top of now having to paying for e-tolls.”

She glanced around to make sure her manager wasn’t within earshot, and proceeded to tell me with vehemence that she wanted to be the first person to be arrested and tried for refusing to pay e-tolls. She explained that she lived in Vosloorus and worked at OR Tambo airport. The additional cost was crippling.

I asked if she had alternative routes to avoid e-toll roads. She informed me that that would mean leaving home at 5am each day because the roads have become heavily congested since the introduction of e-tolls. She is a working mother with school-going children which would add further stress to her domestic circumstances.

I asked her why she didn’t simply buy an e-tag, which would then cap her monthly bill at R450. “Don’t talk to me about that thing,” she said with vehemence, “I refuse to buy one. I want to be the first person to be charged in court as a criminal, so I can tell my story. Then everyone will know what is wrong. They will be shocked.”

She had no idea that she was confiding in a social worker who had two months earlier been contracted by OUTA to work out its new role as an activist civil society organisation intent on promoting Civil Courage in the face of State-sanctioned injustice. Without knowing what was going on inside my head, the spontaneity of “Rosa’s” response to my questions was the confirmation we were needing that OUTA was on the right track.

She had no idea that twelve months later, the e-Toll Advisory Panel would confirm that e-tolls were an unjust imposition on the working class.

To embed me still more firmly in the groove, the next confirmatory synchronicity happened a few weeks later.

I was in an important meeting when OUTA chair Wayne Duvenage interrupted me with an urgent phone call. He was in Cape Town and called me to say that we needed to draft an urgent media statement. Journalists were pestering him for comment on a story that had just broken. The SANRAL e-Toll Central Operating Centre had been evacuated after an anonymous caller had reported that an envelope containing Anthrax had been smuggled into the building. He was concerned that OUTA would be blamed.

I had a strong alibi. It so happened that the very important meeting that Wayne interrupted was with senior officials in a boardroom in the Office of Public Protector in Pretoria. Five of Thuli Madonsela’s dedicated staff had been assigned to meet with me so that I could hand over the mass of complaints from the public that had accumulated in OUTA’s inbox after we had offered to mediate these to the Public Protector. Besides the practicalities, I was begging for the Public Protector play an impartial mediating role in the ever-worsening situation, to channel the anger and frustration OUTA was receiving precisely to discourage criminal and terrorist acts.

The tedious work of collating the complaints was hardly seditious plotting against a hated enemy by a fanatical anti-social group of embittered saboteurs. Nevertheless the insinuation duly came. In response to the incident, Gauteng MEC for Transport Ishmael Vadi issued a statement stating “opponents of the e-toll system calling for civil disobedience and the wilful disregard of decisions of the courts should in part be held accountable for creating a climate which allows for terrorist activity to be perpetrated by individuals and groups.”

The Deputy Public Protector Advocate Kevin Malunga advised me to send a polite letter to MEC Vadi, which read:

“OUTA has received a strong reaction from supporters who take exception to that statement and Mr Wayne Duvenage has asked me request that you clarify your remark and apologise to OUTA and all good citizens who oppose e-tolling, for demonising them by associating them with the incident.

“For you to have suggested that opponents of e-tolls are partly responsible for hoax terror attacks on SANRAL implies that opponents of e-tolls should not exercise their democratic Constitutional right to legally protest against what they consider to be an unjust law. By associating one right (legal protest) with an unlawful act (hoax) is tantamount to defamation. By associating everyone who opposes e-tolling with rash and irresponsible acts of an apparently disgruntled employee within SANRAL’s e-toll revenue collection system is grossly unfair and prejudicial.”

Mr Vadi duly acknowledged the letter which was copied to the Public Protector for her record. He never apologised.

As further evidence of injustice and wastage of money mounted, OUTA agreed to my strategic proposal that I lodge a complaint to the Office of the Public Protector in my professional capacity, with OUTA’s tactical support.

I stayed in touch with ‘Rosa’ and she consented to let me feature her story in the memorandum. The seventeen-page document is titled Complaint against the South African National Roads Agency Ltd for unjust conduct in the implementation of Gauteng Open Road Tolling (e-toll) system, and opens with “Rosa’s” story featured up front to crystallise the intent.

Selma opens in South African cinemas on 6 February. Just in time for ‘Rosa’ and all other Gauteng residents to join her to see the film and learn the lessons it offers as they re-mobilise against the Gauteng Government, SANRAL and the National Transport Department to face the fact that the citizens of Gauteng have developed a deep distrust of SANRAL, that e-tolling remains an albatross around the neck of the Gauteng Government, and the ANC, and that pasting feathers onto the wings of the dead albatross is not going to make it fly. DM

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