It is hard, in South Africa, to make yourself universally detested. Just about every hot issue — this week “kill the boer” and “darkies” in Parliament — splits along race, class or regional lines.
But if you want to ensure unending opprobrium from just about everyone in Gauteng at present, it is surprisingly easy. Just declare your support for toll roads. Plans to charge users substantial rates for zipping along the broad, smooth lanes that the South African National Roads Agency has been laying down around the province have taxi drivers and suburban commuters singing protest songs in unprecedented harmony.
Even the Gauteng provincial ANC has taken a stand against the tolls — notwithstanding the position of the national government, which the party controls. And in that disagreement a glimmer of insight into the debate may lie.
All things being equal, the user pays principle is hard to argue with, but it is kryptonite for local politicians. Massive and highly expensive roads stretching from Johannesburg to Pretoria are of benefit principally to those who use them: commuters who want take advantage of cheaper housing in Midrand, or Centurion, while working in Sandton, for example, or logistics companies that are able to move goods more quickly between the two cities.
Fund road infrastructure out of fiscus and a tavern owner in Gugulethu who walks to work from her house a block away is paying as much to subsidise urban sprawl 1 500km away as the residents of Jo’burg’s gated exurbs.
And resources are diverted away from other critical priorities the whole nation shares — health, education and housing, to choose just the most obvious examples. And then there are the spatial development issues. Where roads are heavily subsidised, so is the kind of low-density, inefficient, environmentally and socially destructive urban pattern that characterises the Johannesburg-Midrand-Pretoria megalopolis.
There seems to be a view among critics of road pricing that it will make driving more expensive. It won’t. Driving is already expensive. Tolling simply reallocates the cost to those who actually benefit from road infrastructure. To put it crudely, there are three ways we can pay for road travel. One is time and vehicle maintenance. We can spend no money on upgrades and instead sit for hours on choked and potholed roads.
The second is from the fiscus, with the burden distributed across the entire population. That is unjust and it distorts the choices people make about where they live and how they get around. Fuel levies fall broadly into this category too. The third is user pays — equitable, efficient and painful for those who have to adjust to it. All things being equal, it is the only way to go. All things, unfortunately, are not equal.
Road users were not prepared for the scale of the cost increase and it is far from clear whether the provincial government is ready to deal with the impact of toll-dodgers on the smaller roads that it maintains.
Worse, the public transport network in the province remains patchy and disconnected, with the Gautrain mega-project plonked down in the middle of disparate bus and rail systems.
Road pricing is the right policy for South Africa’s dysfunctional cities, but it needs vast transport planning and joined-up government. When we see a bit more of that, we’ll happily make ourselves unpopular supporting it.