Admit defeat and pull down the e-toll gantries: motorists have paid for these roads anyway

31 March 2019 - 00:06

The decision by Sanral to suspend all action against e-toll defaulters and not to issue new summonses has dealt the project a huge blow and could precipitate its demise. It may have finally dawned on the architects of this silly scheme that their baby was stillborn. It was ill-considered and sneaked on an unsuspecting public.
The public was quick to smell a rat, though. The rebellious spirit that saw off apartheid soon took hold. Should the project finally collapse, it would constitute the most stunning act of civil disobedience undertaken since the dawn of democracy. The government would hopefully have learnt never to take the public for granted again, especially on matters that touch their pockets.
Sanral's decision may be a genuine attempt to deal with a cul-de-sac. The decision by credit bureaus not to blacklist e-toll defaulters seems to have thrown a spanner in the works. Denying people the ability to get credit was going to be an effective instrument in getting them to toe the line.
But there may be another sinister motive, as some opposition politicians have been quick to point out. The ruling party, its critics say, is keen to remove e-tolls as a hot-button electioneering issue in the run-up to the elections, then to start afresh and ramp it up after the polls. If that's the idea, it's bound to fail. Public sentiment cannot be switched on and off like a tap.
The Sanral board may have shot itself in the foot or even sounded the death knell for the project. The decision has given the refuseniks a shot in the arm, convinced that the correctness of their action has been vindicated. Those already paying will start questioning why they're doing so when there are no consequences for those who don't. And anybody who seeks to register to pay for the first time in such circumstances will frankly need to have his head read.
The project is at a crossroads, with the balance slightly tilted in favour of its critics. This is probably why finance minister Tito Mboweni was almost incandescent with rage this week as he lambasted the Sanral board for its "very bad decision", which he said had implications not only for the credit ratings of Sanral itself but that of the country. He ordered the board to reverse its decision "immediately", although it's not clear whether he has the authority to issue such an instruction. I'm sure the Sanral directors were quaking in their boots as he spoke.
But Mboweni was flogging a dead horse. And if it's still alive, it's already bolted. That's understandable. He's a new arrival in this boondoggle, having spent Jacob Zuma's wasted years lining his own pockets in the private sector.
Apart from having been conceived in infamy, the system has also been a source of acrimonious divisions within the ruling alliance. The unions are dead against it and have campaigned vigorously against it. There was no unanimity even within the government. A succession of transport ministers - Jeff Radebe, Sbu Ndebele, Ben Martins, all incidentally from KwaZulu-Natal where people aren't encumbered by e-tolls - tried to sell the scheme to the public and failed. It almost folded but for then finance minister Pravin Gordhan who, after a high court ruling against it, took the case on appeal and won.
But the e-tolls have exacted a heavy political toll on the ANC. The party lost Tshwane and Johannesburg - the country's two biggest metros - during the 2016 local government elections. Zuma's unpopularity and the e-tolls were the albatross around its neck. What infuriated the Gauteng ANC even more was that it was blamed for the loss of the metros even though voter sentiments had been driven by issues beyond its purview.
The Gauteng ANC has become even more vocal in its opposition to the system since Cyril Ramaphosa took office. Mboweni's spirited intervention may be aimed at stiffening Ramaphosa's resolve in favour of the system. Ramaphosa, who has been silent on the matter, may want to let sleeping dogs lie just before the elections. But the cracks in the party are getting wider. Gauteng premier David Makhura recently joined a Cosatu march to the Union Buildings against e-tolls, and has welcomed the Sanral decision as "progressive". The opposition will, no doubt, seek to exploit these divisions.
If e-tolls are a tax, as Mboweni says - render unto Caesar, is his favourite phrase - why is it being imposed only on people in Gauteng? Are they the only people travelling on tarred roads? What type of tax system is it that discriminates against citizens?
As for the so-called user-pays principle, the motorists are already paying for the construction and maintenance of the roads through the fuel levy. It's about time the levy is used for what it was created for. Mboweni increased it again in his budget speech and the motorist is going to be hit with a double whammy come next month.
In an effort to stem the outcry over fuel hikes, Ramaphosa six months ago appointed a task team to look at ameliorating their effects. Since then there's been a number of increases, and Mboweni has added to the pain with the increase on the fuel levy. But there's been no word on the task team's recommendations.
One gets nauseous listening to the Zondo commission on how our taxes are being frittered away with gay abandon by the same people who want even more money from us. And they don't only want our money, but our votes too. We're being bled dry by people who claim to have our interests at heart.
The government should just admit defeat and pull down the gantries.

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