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Durban - The Roman Catholic Church has added its powerful voice to the swelling opposition against charging motorists for using South Africa’s freeways, calling the proposed e-tolling “morally unjust”.
It urged people into open rebellion by calling on them not to buy e-tags or pay the toll fees.
As Parliament pushes through the e-toll bill, the co-ordinator of the Justice and Peace Department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Michael Deeb, said e-tolling would be a further burden on the poor who were battling to find jobs and live with steep electricity and food prices.
“We believe, after the research we have done, that at best the whole e-tolling is gross misappropriation of public funds and at worst is total corruption,” he said. “We as the church have been concerned.”
A select parliamentary committee on public services met earlier this month to discuss the Transport and Related Matters Amendment Bill and unanimously approved a word change amendment before sending it back to the portfolio committee.
The amendment, proposed by ANC MP Raseriti Tau, changed a section to say that when the minister of transport makes a regulation in terms of the law, this must be submitted to Parliament for “consideration” instead of the original term “comment”.
The bill amends the law to allow for the electronic collection of tolls and the prosecution of those who fail to pay.
The government insists that tolling roads is the only viable way to pay for the upgrades and maintenance of freeways.
Deeb said the government had not been honest with South Africans and there were other ways they could pay for the improvement of the freeways.
“We believe there is an alternative, such as raising the fuel levy, which is being ignored. If there was just a slight increase to the fuel levy this whole thing would be paid off in one go.
“But with the tolls we are going to pay for it for ever. Because of this, we are demanding answers and that the consultation process should listen to the people, which we don’t believe they have done,” he said.
“We are urging all people, not just people from the church but all people of goodwill to not collaborate with the e-toll system. They should not buy e-tags and they should not participate in it at all. We should force the government to listen to the alternatives.”
Vusi Mona, general manager for communications at national roads agency Sanral, said an inter-ministerial committee led by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe met reli-gious organisations last year to discuss this matter and the Catholic church’s representative was not there.
“That was an opportunity for consultation and discussion which the church missed,” he said.
“We are saddened that they have gone outside the view of other religious leaders and even more so, that they decided to make their view heard only to the public and not to Sanral or its shareholder,” he said.
Mona rejected the church’s call for a fuel levy increase, explaining that e-tolling was more efficient and cost-effective.
“Tolling is a mechanism where only those people who use that particular road, fund its construction and maintenance. The model makes it possible to mobilise substantial capital resources upfront, usually through debt or equity,” he said.
“Road users must, in real terms, receive a net positive economic benefit when they use the improved road - time and vehicle operating cost savings that are greater than the cost of the toll.”
Said Mona: “Suggestions that the fuel levy must be increased to fund this particular project may very well mean that every time a new road has to be built or an existing one refurbished, the fuel levy would provide the solution. “Such an approach is unsustainable.”
Last week, provincial Transport MEC, Willies Mchunu, announced that Sanral had agreed to scrap the proposed toll gate at Isipingo, south of Durban, and that no toll gates would be built anywhere else on the South Coast to pay for a new highway along the Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape.
However, Sanral has denied that the toll plan has been scrapped. Mona said yesterday that the N2 Wild Coast toll project would continue on the Eastern Cape side while discussions are under way with the KwaZulu-Natal government.
He said the funding model would be determined by the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission.