File Photo: Ziphozonke Lushaba

If there was ever one sure way to destabilise the economy, it is the introduction of e-tolling on Gauteng’s highways. The extent of opposition to the tolls is a sign that there is very little chance for tolling to get off to a good start in its current form.

What is certain is that there will be plenty of long-term pain, especially for business and the working poor, whether they drive their own car or commute by taxi. That taxis are exempted won’t mean much when food prices soar along with everything else that gets transported through Gauteng.

We have all heard tales of how some Austrian outfit and other entities stand to cash in when Gauteng residents start paying for every kilometre of travel on some of the province’s busiest roads.

If the developments of the past few weeks and the planned mass protest by Cosatu are anything to go by, the introduction of the tolls has pretty much been a disaster and surprisingly the public has seen nobody take responsibility for getting this whole affair so wrong.

In any other country some political careers might well be on the line by now, but not in South Africa. Sheer incompetence and double-speak has greeted nearly every call for a more candid and considered approach in dealing with public concerns and those of business.

Perhaps the curse of our progress since the dawning of a new political dispensation is our failure to accept that we are a developing country and therefore cannot just transpose first-world quick fixes to address many of our systemic problems.

As with any decision, there is always the sad reality of unintended consequences, and in this regard they include a deleterious rise in the cost of doing business in Gauteng. We should not be surprised to see businesses slashing jobs or even going so far as leaving Gauteng as the burden of tolling alters the fundamental way of carrying out business in a very critical part of the country.

Some vital facts about Gauteng will be worth remembering in the likely event that down the road the cost of tolling proves more detrimental than beneficial to the country’s broader economy:

* Gauteng has the largest population of all the provinces, with 11.2 million people, making up 22.4 percent of South Africa’s total

* Gauteng has a gross domestic product (GDP) valued at R811 billion.

* Gauteng accounts for 33.9 percent of South Africa’s GDP and a staggering 10 percent of the total GDP of the entire African continent.

This is sobering perspective, and one would hope that SA National Roads Agency Limited and its government allies took time to weigh these statistics carefully against their objective to turn Gauteng roads into a mega ATM.

Tolling is the last thing the Gauteng economy needs if it is to sustain the levels of opportunity that have historically helped many South Africans escape poverty elsewhere by coming to eke out a living in the city of gold, Johannesburg.

Not long ago South Africa was mired in a recession that followed the global financial meltdown and annual GDP growth remains in the 3 percent range, which will not see us creating sustainable jobs any time soon, yet the government has been quick to jam a key cog in our economy’s engine – Gauteng – with what obviously is a complicated and burdensome ploy.

Surely we could still come up with a more workable alternative to something that is going to make the country a laughing stock of the world, especially when it dawns on the government that in the long run we cannot tax our way to prosperity.

The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project certainly marked the beginning of a much-needed process to augment critical infrastructure but little if any thought was put into the feasibility of recouping money spent on the project via other avenues like a ring-fenced fuel levy or a road fund.

This week is likely to bring more acrimony around as those opposed to tolls do all they can to urge for a workable alternative that will put the country’s economy and people’s livelihoods first, and the bankers a distant second.

Tolling not only risks plunging Gauteng’s roads into chaos on April 30, but political expediency risks damaging our credibility with the lenders who undoubtedly need to be repaid.