Mexican standoff over South Africa's 'highway robbery'

The controversial e-tolling system has become the focus of a tense political standoff between the government and civil society.

Unions are saying that there is still time for the plans to be reversed completely, and that they may yet carry through plans to barricade national roads if the e-tolling rollout goes ahead.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has called for a boycott of the system.

Regardless of the apparently intense public opposition, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), which will manage the e-tolling system, says more than 300 000 people have already registered for e-tags.

The Gauteng government, meanwhile, has announced that the system will be rolled out across the province’s highways on April 30, come what may.

“Inasmuch as we hear the objections against e-tolling, we believe we’ve done all we can in consulting and making concessions—the time has come to implement this Cabinet decision,” Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane told journalists in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

This comes less than a week after Cosatu hosted the largest planned civil protest since the dawn of democracy, with thousands of South Africans taking to the streets in opposition to e-tolling as well as labour broking.

Despite a memorandum of demands calling for the complete scrapping of e-tolling being delivered into Mokonyane’s own hands during the march, the premier said the Gauteng government was obliged by the national government to proceed with the initiative.

“The time for debating e-tolling has come and gone. This is a Cabinet decision and we as provincial government must follow through,” Mokonyane said.

Let’s talk about a complete reversal
Cosatu, however, insists that the time for talking is not yet over.

“We cannot accept at this stage that the time for consultation is over and we’ll do everything in our power within the alliance to reverse this decision to implement the tolls,” Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told the Mail & Guardian.

Craven added the labour federation would continue opposing the system and hadn’t ruled out following through on their threats to barricade Johannesburg’s highways.

“Nothing is definite, but we’re exploring all options,” Craven said.

The labour federation is not alone in its continued resistance against the plans, with the opposition Democratic Alliance also vowing to carry on challenging the system.

Jack Bloom, the DA’s leader in the Gauteng Legislature told the M&G on Tuesday the party was calling on all Gauteng motorists to boycott the system.

“There is no use in them trying to crack the whip: Many people simply won’t register and it simply won’t work,” Bloom said.

In addition to this civil society has taken up the cause with an association named Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) soon to be formed.

“This is an alliance of several professional, civil and political bodies that are joining for the common purpose of opposing this unfair system,” Wayne Duvenage, deputy president of Southern African Vehicle Rental Leasing Association—one of the bodies forming Outa—told the M&G.

With an Outa website soon to be launched, Duvenage said the body hopes to harness the full might of public opposition in the hopes of mounting a legal challenge against e-tolling.

“The more we dig in and turn to the courts, the more we discover our legal challenge is a viable one,” Duvenage said.

According to Duvenage, those already signed up to Outa include the Retail Motor Industry Organisation, the Automobile Association, the DA and the Southern Africa Tourism Association.

Outa plans to legally challenge the e-tolling system based on an argument of no recourse for consumers who allege they have been incorrectly charged for using the highways, as well as the lack of proper legislation to govern e-tolling.

“The process has set up a house of cards that will come tumbling down within a year if government wants to force this system through,” Duvenage said.

The tolling requires commuters to fit an e-tag which will monitor each time they pass a specific gantry on the highway and be charged electronically. Vehicles without an e-tag will have their licence plates monitored and billed for their journeys. If people refuse to fit e-tags, they will be barred from renewing their vehicle licenses until all outstanding fees have been paid and an e-tag has been fitted.

Duvenage says opposition to the tolls is not only about protecting the rights of consumers, but safeguarding civil liberties.

“When a government tries to force something blatantly wrong down the throats of its citizens, it’s the beginning of a very dangerous relationship,” Duvenage added.

‘Nothing to be done’
But even with a civil rebellion in the offing, the national government stands by its decision to implement the system.

Cabinet spokesperson Jimmy Manyi said that although government is sympathetic to the plight of consumers, the decision “didn’t come lightly” and “nothing can be done” to reverse it.

“Government has gone out its way to lessen the cost impact on South Africans. The option of cancelling the e-tolling system and funding these upgrades from the fiscus was looked into but it was determined not to be feasible,” Manyi told the M&G.

Manyi added that in light of expenses having already been incurred “somehow payment has to be made”.

“By choosing e-tolling we are being sensitive to the needs of the poor and middle class. If the system was scrapped, we’d need to find R20-billion overnight and this would severely impact on other social programmes such as health and education,” Manyi said.

Manyi also refuted allegations that the government was trying to force the system on citizens without first consulting them.

“That is incorrect. We have detailed records of various meetings with stakeholders that form part of an extensive consultative process,” he said.

However Manyi would not comment on Cosatu’s touted plan to barricade the highway or other plans to oppose e-tolling, for fear of an “unproductive headline”.

Mexican standoff
With neither government nor opposers of the e-tolling system keen to budge, Eusebius McKaiser, political commentator and associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics, said on Tuesday that the matter was headed for “dangerous terrain”.

“It’s not something that will go on forever, e-tolling must either be scrapped or implemented, and whoever blinks first will be left with egg on their face,” McKaiser said.

So while there appears to exist no potential for compromise in the spat over who will pay for the improvement of Gauteng’s highways, the debacle may give the starkest indication yet of who wears the trousers in this democracy: the government or the people.

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend. Read more from Nickolaus Bauer

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