As the fight against urban tolling moves out of the courts and on to the streets
As the fight against urban tolling moves out of the courts and on to the streets – and soon on to the highways – concerns about how far angry protesters may go are rising, both at the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) and beyond.
Although Sanral carries general insurance for its assets, it is not clear whether its insurers would pay up if high-tech toll gantries were toppled as a result of civil disturbance.
Cosatu-led protest marches in the centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria on Friday would only be the beginning of the campaign against e-tolls, the organisation's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said. "On [Thursday] the 6th of December we are not only going to march, but give the government a little dose of what to expect in March if they pass that law and try to force implementation of the e-tolls." Workers would "occupy the highways and claim them as ours", Vavi promised.
Arrangements had not yet been finalised at the time of going to print, but indications were that Cosatu and its allies could be granted permission for a convoy protest on the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria next Thursday. Safety concerns about pedestrians on the freeway precludes a traditional march, but slow-moving vehicles, intentionally delaying traffic on Africa's busiest intercity highway could serve much the same purpose.
If such a convoy is permitted, the condition in which the open-road tolling gantries would be left subsequently is an open question. Cosatu's Gauteng secretary, Dumisani Dakile, this Thursday disclaimed earlier comments that a lack of government action will give people "no choice but to go and demolish those tollgates", and other groups called for peaceful protests. But recent public consultations on the proposed tolls have shown high levels of anger from a cross-section of South Africans, and what some see as an absence of reason.
Expectation of violence
"No matter what you said to them, they weren't listening," said a Sanral staffer, who is not authorised to speak to the media, about the heated public meetings. "We were the enemy. Nothing we said was the truth in their minds."
Such sentiment has already seen the metro police forces of Johannesburg and Pretoria confer on the management of upcoming protests against urban tolls, though early preparations do not indicate an expectation of violence.
Earlier this year rumour had it that trucking companies would block highways around Gauteng in protest at the tolls, but that never materialised. An attempt by caravaners and bikers to blockade the N1 with slow-moving vehicles, supported by the likes of Solidarity, was abandoned before it started, in the face of police threats of arrest.
But the stakes are rising, with groups opposed to the tolling faring poorly in court, and with slim prospects of success.
Judge Louis Vorster on Wednesday reserved judgment on the matter in the North Gauteng High Court and promised to deliver his ruling expeditiously, but he would not commit to a date.
The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance has argued that the formal declaration of toll roads should be set aside for a lack of public consultation, but Sanral and the national treasury responded that civil society has had years to act, yet chose to do so at the last possible moment.
Ratings agency Moodys and the auditor general have warned that Sanral could face financial ruin should the tolls be scrapped, or if implementation is significantly delayed. – Additional reporting by Sapa