E-tolls: Our government’s Messiah complex

I have a friend who works in project management, often with governmental departments. He's noticed a particular phenomenon he dubs the Messiah complex. 

It goes something like this: a certain department identifies a problem. They sit down together and think really hard about this problem. Maybe call some friends who've had similar experiences. Bring in some expensive consultants, look at international case studies. And then, after an arduous process, they present to the world, exhausted but thoroughly self-satisfied, The Plan. 

The Plan generally has huge implications for thousands of people. But here's the thing about The Plan: never once does the department ask the actual people who will have to live with The Plan, their thoughts on how to fix the original problem. Cue annoyance and frustration when the recipients of The Plan aren't so much grateful as hopping mad, and liable to bring up a host of issues the benevolent planners never thought of, having not had the lived experience of the problem. 

Lately I've been tracing so many of our problems between citizens and government to this Messiah complex. 

E-tolls. The eviction of informal traders from the streets of Johannesburg. And less reported but still an issue, the re-opening of the land claims process, in a desperate pre-election popularity bid despite the lack of means to do it. 

E-tolls ostensibly launches on Tuesday after an exhausting battle between citizens and our government. It has become abundantly clear that no one wants this; that our government failed us by not doing the simple work of talking to us first. A few nondescript adverts appeared at the beginning of the process calling for input but were largely overlooked and suddenly, a few years later, we were landed with this improbable system. 

Most of the people I know understand we must pay for our roads. But to do it this way is unconscionable. The sheer administration of the e-toll system renders it ridiculous and it seems that too much of our money going towards it will be spent in the first few years in paying a foreign company with little benefit to South Africans. There seems to be very little sense in how this system was thought out and that is precisely because it was done in isolation, without enough input from the many different people whose lives will be majorly affected by the e-tolls. 

But it's too late to think of alternatives as gantries have been built and debts incurred. If our government had not patronised us and properly asked for our input at the beginning of the process we could have found a solution that works for all of us. South Africans aren't too bad at doing that. It's just that our government has forgotten that quality about us and started nannying us by purporting to tell us what to do and how to do it, and forgetting that all important term from their National Development Plan (NDP): An active and engaged citizenry. This is probably because the NDP is the one plan that is consulting widely.

(A video explaining and protesting against the e-tolls surfaced on YouTube in the past two months, though no organisation has yet taken credit for it.)

The informal street traders who were booted off the streets of Johannesburg is a similar situation. The group are currently in court trying to reverse the ridiculous decision. 

I live in the Johannesburg CBD and the least of my problems in my neighbourhood are the traders. They were an important part of the ecosystem, creating a sense of community on the streets, which unlike much of Johannesburg, is a pedestrian haven and great for walking around. 

But I do understand that for some businesses in the CBD, who are essential to the regeneration that the area needs, the way informal traders conducted their businesses was not helpful. And the fact that the city failed to regulate them properly meant nefarious and criminal elements did creep in, posing a danger to many. 

But to throw them all out together: the good with the bad, is counterproductive. There were many models the city could have investigated, not least of which the linear street market model that was successfully in operation in Kerk Street. Government-built stalls were allocated to tradesman and the street closed off, posing danger to neither pedestrians nor cars.

What we have now is a sad situation where my neighbours and I are forced to rely on big retailers for our fresh produce and small business owners, the supposed lifeblood of our economy, have been driven into unemployment. Way to go Johannesburg City. 

"What they should have done is consult broadly and put a way together," said a friend who works with the City of Johannesburg. "You can't evict people until you have somewhere else for them to be."

He said the city had gone from one extreme, which was bad, to another equally unhelpful extreme. 

"Now everyone has suffered because the city has failed to manage the traders," he concluded. "The worrying thing is, if they win the application, the city will just leave it again."

So there we have it, swinging between two unhealthy extremes thanks to one missing ingredient: humility, and the willingness to listen to the people involved even if you think you're so much smarter and well-informed than they.

The funny thing is the ANC-led government has built its brand on being a party of the people. Together we can do more, and so on. 

But something has happened to the ANC almost 20 years into power. It has too often stopped consulting and asking the people involved in its plans, the ones consultants like to call stakeholders, what they think needs to happen. Because God forbid the ordinary proletariat could be smart enough for that. 

No, instead I imagine the people at the top think they know what the rabble will say ahead of time and how uninformed it'll be so they don't bother. They're too inspired by the so-called Chinese model of central planning, where big brother calls the shots.

But that's the danger. To assume you know it all. None of us do, that's why we human beings are made to be in community: to learn from each other and never, ever assume that one of us has all the answers. 

I just wish somebody would remind our government of that. 

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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