Johannesburg - As the queues at Sanral's e-tolling centres get longer and its website’s crashes become more frequent, hundreds of complaints are streaming in that the system is a disaster, with money inexplicably appearing in and disappearing from road users' e-toll accounts.
And Howard Dembovsky, head of the Justice Project South Africa, says it's no accident.
"There is an enormous time wastage that is being purposefully caused by Sanral in order to coerce people into saving themselves time and money by registering for e-tags," he said. "The functionality of their website is practically useless to anybody who is not a registered user."
Even being registered is no protection against problems with the system, says businessman Ian Jenkins, owner of Magnum Sand and Stone
He owns a fleet of 44 vehicles that he said he had registered and obtained e-tags for in 2012.
His business was closed from 20 December until 6 January and his fleet of vehicles was not in use. He nevertheless received five transactions for this period, including one for a motorcycle he did not own.
Jenkins said the transactions from this period did not detail the vehicle's registration numbers, nor where the vehicle had allegedly passed through a gantry.
He had also found that the system recorded his vehicles as different classes of vehicles at different gantries. Sometimes a gantry simply did not pick up his e-tag and he was charged the higher price for non-registered users.
Then, three weeks ago, he received a credit of R12 300 in his account and a message saying "Thank you for topping up".
Jenkins had, however, not topped up his account.
Despite making several phone calls, nothing has been done.
When he complained of problems with the website, he was told to rather do his work at night, when the website might be quieter.
John Clarke, spokesman for rights group Outa, said it had received 900 complaints from motorists so far and was sifting through them in order to submit a document to the public protector.
He said the most common complaints centred on consumers being told they were being handed over for debt collection without having received an invoice, inaccurate billing and inaccurate crediting of accounts.
Clarke added that documentation detailing where and when a driver had used the tolled roads was erratic. He said some motorists were receiving no information on their alleged toll use, while he had recently received a seven-page bill printed in full colour, but from which it was impossible to gain any meaning.
Meanwhile Electronic Toll Collection CEO Jamie Surkont said the SA National Roads Agency Limited's nerve centre was operating at full capacity again on Wednesday following Tuesday's anthrax scare, when a "suspicious envelope containing a white substance" was found on the premises.
The building was evacuated and its electricity shut down, and 37 people were decontaminated and hospitalised as a precautionary measure. Biological testing later revealed that the powder was not anthrax.
At the time Sanral general manager for communications Vusi Mona stated: "This disruption will affect the Gauteng highway e-tolling system and we apologise to motorists for any inconvenience which this will cause."
Dembovsky said the Justice Project was surprised the incident had brought Sanral's much vaunted "technological masterpiece" of e-tolling to a grinding halt
However, Surkont later said it had remained operational and that there had been "insignificant service interruptions" at the call centre.
Dembovsky pointed out that if the system was affected with nobody able to man it, this suggested that a system people had been led to believe was highly-automated and infallible, was in fact reliant on being manned.
He said he had received a complaint from a motorist saying he had been sent a bill for a number plate ending in 710 instead of 701, which indicated that Sanral's system was not using an automatic number plate recognition system as it claimed, but that aspects of it were being manually processed.
It also suggested that Sanral had no redundancy built into the e-tolling IT system infrastructure, by having more than one system in place.
"Given the enormous cost of installing and implementing such a system, one would have thought that fundamental corporate IT best practices would have been employed and that Sanral and its tender winners would not have placed all of their eggs in one basket," he said.
"If this is indeed the case, which apparently it is, then government should order an immediate investigation into the competence of both those who drafted and awarded the tenders and those who simply forged ahead and installed such a technologically vulnerable system, for which the public is expected to pay both arms and both legs."
Sanral did not respond directly to questions submitted to it on Tuesday.
It said in a statement: "This is a new system which we are constantly reviewing by identifying the most common complaints and making the necessary interventions.
"We are also identifying the least-understood areas and scaling up our communication and education on these."