As the e-tolling saga unfolds, it is proving to be a great dividing force for our nation. But at the same time it could prove to be a potentially unifying cause as well.
This idea of road tolling is not new. There is a long-standing precedent for charging tolls for pieces of economically valuable road in South Africa. It stretches as far back as 1803, in fact.
In just one example, Thomas Bain constructed the Nieuwekloof Pass along the Klein Berg River in the late 1700s to connect the outlying areas of the Tulbagh Valley (then known as Roodezand) with the Western Cape, and in so doing he opened up new channels of transport and economy.
A turnpike was constructed in the early 1800s on one particular corner that constantly fell away in heavy rains, often rendering the pass useless; and lo and behold, a tolling scheme was implemented to defray the cost of keeping the road in repair.
A chaise or a loaded wagon cost four shillings; an unloaded wagon cost two shillings; one shilling was levied for every 20 oxen and another shilling for every 30 sheep, and so on. By 1807, the cattle drivers had become so fed up with the "trifling matter of tolls" on the Nieuwekloof Pass, and its constant state of disrepair, that they built their own Oudekloof Pass on the opposite side of the valley to avoid paying the toll.
Unsurprisingly, there are many elements to this historical vignette that align with the saga of e-tolling under way in South Africa.
TomTom Congestion Index
At present the e-tolling debacle is limited to Gauteng motorists in the form of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, which is the South African National Roads Agency's (Sanral's) biggest attempt to date to improve, update and add lanes to the highways of Gauteng.
The recently released 2012 TomTom Congestion Index listed Johannesburg and Cape Town as the two most congested cities in South Africa, but since the previous TomTom index, congestion has decreased. The improved roads are clearly working.
Sanral, founded in 1998, is owned by the state. It takes care of the design, financing, maintenance, operation and rehabilitation of South Africa's tolled and untolled roads. In the words of its website: "The major benefits of the national road network are economic growth, tourism, social development and the creation of economic opportunities."
Sanral is funded by two methods: the national fiscus and the collection of tolls — 81% of the roads in South Africa are maintained through the national fiscus, the remaining 19% through the collection of tolls. That seemed like a fair and sensible approach to road maintenance, until the freeway project came along.
The project is being completed in stages, with the end goal being a smooth freeway network of 560km, including 34 interchanges. So far, 185km have been completed. How does Sanral plan on financing this? Through open road tolling, of course.
There is a common method of tolling that is used on our national roads — "boom-down" electronic toll collection, where you stop, pay your money and proceed.
Electronic Toll Collection
Open road tolling, or e-tolling, is a different beast altogether in terms of collection of the tolls charged for the use of the road. Instead of booths and booms, freeway-spanning gantries are fitted with electronic equipment that recognises "e-tags" and the vehicle's licence plate number, and deducts money from the relevant account. An e-tag is free, although you pay R60 for it to be delivered.
Electronic Toll Collection, or ETC, is the company managing the e-toll transaction clearing house and national e-toll violations processing centre. It handles all e-toll accounts and the collection of tolls charged to the estimated 600 000 registered e-tag holders — not a large number when you consider that there are about 3.5-million registered vehicles in Gauteng alone, with a traffic count of between 80 000 and 200 000 vehicles on its highways every day.
Fleet operators and rental companies were among the first to buy e-tags; one wonders how many of the 600 000 tags are privately owned. According to a draft notice gazetted in May, there will be a cap of R450 a month, and that for 80% of road users the cost will be less than R100 a month. That calculation is optimistic at best.
A key player is Sanral's head of communications, spin doctor supreme Vusi Mona — the one-time editor of City Press newspaper. He knows the pen is mightier than the sword, and he's good with the pen. Glancing over a press release written by him, you would be forgiven for believing the propaganda.
We have several boxers in the opposing corner — Cosatu, the Catholic Church, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa), spearheaded by Wayne Duvenage and representing a collection of concerned businesses, and the Automobile Association (AA) of South Africa. All of these organisations give a mouthpiece to the rational thought of South African road users.
The main concern at the centre of this for most South Africans is that our roads — a basic public asset and previously free — are now being privatised and we are being charged to use them, even though we already pay levies and taxes that should make up the better part of the cost of maintaining them. Sanral's lack of transparency is laughable considering the lack of public involvement and consensus on the subject of e-tolling, and considering the methods and systems chosen to conduct the process.
The AA and the Southern African Bitumen Association (Sabita) are two independent groups that have highlighted and confirmed that Sanral is misleading the public and inadequately using the fuel levy funds. In 2008, the AA conducted a study showing that the ideal budget for road maintenance should have been R32-billion.
The study from Sabita shows that between 2003 and 2008 only an average of R7.4-billion was spent a year on road construction and maintenance. The 2013 budget review shows that revenue from fuel levies alone from the same time frame came to about R21-billion.
Which means R14-billion is not being spent on maintaining our country's arteries. For the 2013/2014 financial year, there is an estimated R41.7-billion to be earned from fuel levies. Who will this money be misappropriated by while Gauteng motorists are being bled dry?
The e-toll system itself is hugely costly. One of the objections to e-tolling made by Outa is that motorists are not just paying for the upgrading and building of new roads, they're paying for the implementation of this system too. Surely the public should have granted consent for a structure that they're paying for?
The group highlights the costs of the system so far at R1.7-billion a year to operate and administer, and another R1.62-billion a year to pay off capital on road construction costs over a 20-year period. E-tolling itself will raise R100-billion, more than 216% of what is needed to cover the cost. In other words, smash-and-grabs no longer happen only at traffic lights: through Sanral, the government is now smashing and grabbing directly through debit orders.
Even the Catholic Church has weighed in. Father Mike Deeb from the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference on Justice and Peace said: "There should be a transparent discussion on why e-tolling costs this much." He also said the conference wanted to support the court cases against e-tolling.
The Church is weighing in because e-tolling directly affects the poor. This resonates with Duvenage because it's one of the main flaws of e-tolling that Outa objects to.
Patrick Craven of Cosatu said: "This hits back at the propaganda that this is just a middle-class issue … it is not."
Of course, Mona counters that people had the chance to object when e-tolls where first proposed.
A bad model
Leaving the cost of implementing the e-tolling system for a moment, the projected annual revenue from e-tolling in the 2013 financial year is said to be R1.01-billion, yet R1.12-billion will be spent on operating costs for the same period. So, it will cost more to collect the money from road users than road users will pay. Basic business practice tells us this is a bad model.
Alf Lees, a Democratic Alliance member of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), said: "It is a cost that will be passed on to cash-strapped consumers."
Yet it seems Sanral is deaf to all these objections. On April 11 it confirmed that e-tolling in Gauteng was set to commence in the next two months.
Mona said: "What we are now waiting for is the completion of the parliamentary process, half of which is already done. As soon as the NCOP finalises the Transport and Related Matters Amendment Bill, the Bill will go back to the National Assembly for adoption. Transport Minister Ben Martins will then announce the tariffs, which will be followed by the necessary notice periods. That process will take about two months to complete. Thereafter e-tolling will start.
"Some motorists may be erroneously waiting for the appeal application by the Outa before they can consider registering. But that appeal has nothing to do with whether e-tolling should go ahead or not. That question was settled by the Constitutional Court last year when it set aside the interdict that prevented Sanral from implementing e-tolling."
On May 22, the NCOP approved the amendment Bill and Sanral on Sunday announced that the implementation of e-tolls was imminent.
Sanral head Nazir Alli said: "There are a few steps left in this process, but the implementation of the e-toll system is well on its way."
All that remains now is 30 days for the public to comment on the draft documents gazetted and the signing of the amendment Bill into law by President Jacob Zuma. All this happens while Outa waits for its case to have e-tolling scrapped to be heard in the Bloemfontein Supreme Court of Appeal in September.
Meanwhile, in Cape Town, Sanral's plans to implement a tolling scheme along the N1 and N2 highways, dubbed the Winelands Toll, are proceeding apace. Should the Winelands Toll project go ahead, it would run west from the R300 on the N1 through to Sandhills, and from the R300 west along the N2 to Botrivier. The scheme would almost certainly cripple the poor who live in the outlying areas.
A war of words between Sanral and the City of Cape Town has begun, which became noticeably heated when Sanral sent a letter to the city on March 6 to notify it of the intention to take steps to advance plans for the project. The city responded by filing an urgent interdict to prevent Sanral from implementing the plan.
Western Cape High Court Judge Ashley Binns-Ward awarded an interim relief to be granted until the same court's review of Sanral's decision to implement the N1/N2 Winelands Toll was heard. He ruled that all documents proving Sanral's board of directors had made decisions seeking approval for tolling from the transport minister at the time had to be handed over to the City of Cape Town.
The city argues that the former transport minister, Jeff Radebe, did not know the costs of the Winelands Toll and that Sanral withheld vital documentation about the feasibility of the project.
The proposal for the Winelands Toll project was authorised with a record of decision issued in September 2003 by the department of environmental affairs. There are still many twists and turns to unfold in the Sanral-Winelands Toll saga. But perhaps we should be buoyed by the story of the Tulbagh cattle drivers who made their way up the Oudekloof Pass in 1807. A stark reminder that no matter how much we think things change, they do in fact remain the same.