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The new e-tolling dispensation – too little, too late

Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.

The new e-tolling “dispensation” unveiled by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is not some gift from a benevolent government. It’s an admission that roads agency SANRAL lost the war for the hearts and minds of Gauteng motorists. Further, it’s a concession that the system which was initially assembled, and relentlessly praised, was fundamentally flawed.

The official line about the overhaul of the multi-billion rand e-Tolling system is that the “new and improved” version is the result of a long political assembly-line of love, caring and understanding.

Government claims it has listened to our concerns and is launching “e-Tolls 2.0” because it is, to borrow a phrase from the banking industry, simpler, better, faster.

The “hybrid” model sees national and provincial government contributing cash into the pot (our money) to reduce the amount we have to pay (still our money) for the new roads. The debt accumulated now costs 60% less (terms and conditions apply), the new tariffs are cheaper (if you don’t have an e-tag) and those beeping parasites on your windscreens are no longer relevant, since the cost per kilometer has been standardised. There are also some new caps on the monthly amounts.

We will unpack these as we go, but perhaps the most significant announcement was that the paying of e-tolls will now be linked to the annual renewal of car licenses. This is a game changer, and a sure way to force a whole lot more motorists to cough up.

But what does this say about the propaganda war that SANRAL fought in those days of the court challenges and during the provincial review that was launched last year? Government maintained that motorists supported the project. Believed in it. It kept dishing out the patriotic line, circling back to the economic benefits and talking about the need to respect democratic laws.

Figures released in Parliament just days ago paint a different picture. They clearly show that the revenue that SANRAL has been collecting since late 2013, has been steadily dropping. They also show that the number of new e-tags being registered has plummeted – from as many as 350,000 in a single month down to around 20,000 as of April. It makes sense that as time goes by, and more people register, the number of new e-tags drops off. But the slide is dramatic and the total number of e-tags sold is nowhere near what it should be.

The Transport Department blames this, partially, on Premier David Makhura’s review process, saying that with fresh clarity the project will get right back on track.

But whether motorists needed an excuse or not, the numbers are inescapable. As things stand, there has been an overwhelming rejection of e-Tolling and the only way to get people to pay is to force them to.

Initially it was the threat of prosecution. But organisations like OUTA were gearing up to make sure that the very first case would open up a new Constitutional attack on the entire system. Also, hauling tens of thousands of people (or more) to court for petty fines is not sustainable. And so comes the new mechanism: no e-toll payment = no annual car license. And with that comes a cascade of legal problems for car owners. 

This move is the clearest indication yet that SANRAL’s claim that people are behind this system and are willing to pay voluntarily is paper-thin. Remember all those quotes about how the majority of South Africans are law-abiding citizens who just want to do the right thing? They are. Just not when it comes to yet another fist being shoved down their throats by a government that wastes or loses to corruption enough money to pay for this and other e-tolling networks. Not when financial pressure is bearing down from every direction, while there’s no electricity at home. Not while just about every institution designed to protect citizens or fight crime is in a state of crisis.  

Simply put: if motorists supported the e-tolling initiative, if they had been won over by SANRAL, there would be no need to bring out the license renewal stick.

Looking back at the e-tags for a moment, the same reasoning applies. Isn’t doing away with the need for e-tags an admission that it was a bad idea to begin with? To force people to go out and register, and then to diligently top up their accounts, without having shown that enough consultation was done at the beginning was never going to work. People felt cheated and the cumbersome system of different rates for e-tag owners was doomed to fail.

Using the same formula, is the drop in the tariffs and monthly caps not an indication that there was too much greed to start with? That the pricing was wrong given how much people are already taxed?

Are there not echoes here of the so-called “Secrecy Bill”? A dangerous piece of legislation which is being given a make-over but is still being pushed through? Or of the Nkandla scandal, where dressed up lies keep being paraded down the street, with no end in sight.

The revolt against e-tolling is not about the refusal to be taxed. Regular South Africans, myself included, pay our way. It’s not a rejection of the beautiful new highways and the economic benefits they hold. The heart of this fight is the secrecy, arrogance and the failure to inform people properly about what was coming. Yes, SANRAL has proved to the courts that, technically, it complied with all the requirements. But that’s not what motorists out there believe.   

There is no doubt that the new version of e-tolling is better than the last. There is no doubt it will help cash-strapped families. And there is no doubt that there will be a spike in compliance. But the future is uncertain. Will there be fresh court battles that drag on for months or years, possibly over the link between e-tolls and annual license renewals? Protests? Will the system be able to run even with more motorists paying? What political price will be paid?  

The basics never change: Keep your house in order. Govern with transparency. Treat people with dignity. And if you’re going to embark on massive projects that impact millions of people’s lives, the country’s international reputation and its credit rating, get proper buy-in. Because once the storm starts, calming it takes more than a good discount. DM

 Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev 


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