Road agency faces an uphill battle
- Mexican standoff over South Africa's 'highway robbery'
- No turning back: Gauteng e-tolls will kick in April 30
Motorists who refuse to pay for the use of Gauteng’s freeways have again been threatened with legal action, but there is no law in place to govern or enforce e-toll payment.
Thee-tolling saga continued this week when the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) announced that motorists who use the freeway but refuse to pay will be unable to renew their vehicle licences without first clearing their debts.
But Howard Dembovsky, national chairperson of the Justice Project South Africa, a motorist lobby group, said: “I’m not the only one who has turned around and said ‘lock me up’ because, quite frankly, I could use the money—I will sue them blind for unlawful arrest. In the beginning I was mildly amused because they have no legal standing, but I am incensed now.”
Sanral has said road users will have seven days to settle their tolls from the day they are incurred, after which debt collection and legal processes will follow.
Regulation allows for the withholding of a licence
But regulation 59 of the national road traffic regulations allows for the withholding of a vehicle licence only if the person concerned has outstanding licensing fees or licensing penalties, or, in the case of traffic fines, if the person has failed to appear in court on a summons for a traffic offence and a warrant of arrest has been issued.
“The only exception to this rule is that under Aarto [administrative adjudication of road traffic offences], a licence disc may be withheld if an enforcement order has been issued against the party concerned,” Dembovsky said.
Sherman Amos, deputy registrar of the Road Traffic Infringement Agency, confirmed that there is no law governing e-toll payments and said such a law would have to be passed before penalties could be enforced.
“To add a provision to an Act could take six months to a year, but with political interference it could be quicker.” Simply to amend a regulation would take about two weeks, Amos said.
But Themba Langa, senior partner at Langa Attorneys, said any amendments would have to be released for public comment first. “I think it is going to be extraordinary. I foresee a protracted process.”
How to enforce payment?
The agency said it could follow two routes to enforce payment of tolls.
“The first scenario is if Aarto is available to access, we will do so. In the second scenario, if Aarto is not available, Sanral will use its current legislation, which is the implementation of enforcement using the Criminal Procedure Act.”
Gary Ronald, spokesperson for the Automobile Association, which has encouraged its members not to get e-tags, said Aarto was the only system governing traffic in the Johannesburg and Pretoria municipalities, but it did not apply to Ekhuruleni, through which several of the toll roads passed.
“They would the need a separate piece of legislation just for Ekhuruleni,” he said.
Neil Campbell, Democratic Alliance spokesperson for roads and transport, said: “No one has sat down and actually planned this thing properly. There is far too much money involved. This could very well be another Oilgate scandal.”
The e-tolls were set in motion in 2007 under the watch of former transport minister Jeff Radebe and former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa. The government recently took a firm stand and said that tolling would go ahead.
PIC uses pension money to buy Sanral bonds
There have also been recent media reports that the Public Investment Corporation has bought R17-billion of Sanral bonds and that 89% of the money came from the Government Employees’Pension Fund.
Anti-tolling groups have actively lobbied against the system and, most recently, Cosatu staged a protest that was supported by thousands of South Africans.
But the government is adamant that the tolling will go ahead on April 30. Sanral chief executive Nazir Alli announced this week that more than 300 000 people had registered for the tolling system.
Ronald described the number as fairly large considering that Sanral figures showed that as many as 200 000 vehicles travelled past the New Road off-ramp in Midrand each day.
But Campbell said the registration numbers, considering that almost four million vehicles were registered in Gauteng, showed that the push had “failed”.
The government recently put R5.75-billion from the fiscus towards the tolls to reduce light motor vehicle fees from 60c a kilometre to 30c and to cap monthly fees at R550. But the “compromise” appears to have further enraged Gauteng motorists. “My sense is we are going to see a lot more resistance,” Ronald said. “There is a combination of factors working in favour of those opposing the tolls and one of them is the fuel price. People are going to start realising that they actually cannot pay it—it’s either feed my family or go to work.”
Campbell said: “They think the motorist is a cash cow to be milked, but they have been milked to death.”
Dembovsky warned that a solution had to be found. “When you have two completely opposing arguments, as we have now, what makes the government think there is going to be anything other than violence?”
Mike Schussler of economists.co.za said the public had had enough. “If you look at the economic situation at the moment, growth is slower and electricity, even though lower than expected, is still going up at almost the rate of inflation. The public are feeling a bit gatvol.”
He said that the government, for the past 20 years, had spent less than 3% of the gross domestic product on infrastructure but had allowed public enterprises to spend 4% to 5%.
“But they have to get it back one way or another.”
Eskom’s tariff increase, Schussler said, was the perfect example. “In total, they’ve increased fees by 80% overall. It’s a bit much.”