Amid discontent over a range of issues, resistance to e-tolls has been a unifying force for the public for eight years, and withholding licence discs could be the tipping point, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.
Johannesburg - The e-toll saga has the potential to conjure up a perfect context for a tipping point of Gladwellian proportions in the rising tide of discontent against the government in Gauteng and elsewhere.
Behind our backs, the e-tolls matter has been forging an unprecedented and mind-boggling unity of purpose among a diverse group of South Africans – young and old, black and white, working class and middle class, rich and poor, male and female.
Few other causes have achieved such a cross-section of support in post-apartheid South Africa.
Given that e-tolls are supposed – rather mistakenly, if I may add – to be mainly a middle-class matter, and given that they are supposed to be only a provincial issue (wait until the model is exported to the next province), it is remarkable how much traction the issue has gained among South Africans.
They have tackled few other issues with the same kind of resolve and creativity.
Instead of resorting solely to the usual and overused method of the good old protest march soaked in Struggle songs, Gauteng residents have employed and deployed a variety of instruments, strategies and tactics.
It is as if those opposed to e-tolling have been using, as manual and inspiration, James Scott’s book, Weapons of the Weak. Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.
On October 12, it will be a whopping eight years since “e-toll” entered the national vocabulary. Gauteng citizens have not allowed this word to have any peace since.
A rather long and complex chess game is being played out between the government and citizens in the e-tolls saga.
Again and again the government has been sent back to think again. Each time the government has been found wanting.
In this boxing match between government and citizens, the citizens are ahead on points, and the match is far from over.
Haven’t we come some way from the initial arrogant utterances by some SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral) and government officials on the e-tolls matter?
Yet it was rather presumptuous for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to suggest, in his May 20 announcement, unilaterally and a priori, that the government is ushering in “a dispensation that is fair, affordable and sustainable”.
It was rather rich of him to suggest that his announcement “addresses in a comprehensive and balanced manner the concerns raised by our people”, adding that “the new dispensation demonstrates that we are a responsive and a responsible government” that is “alive to the needs and concerns of citizens”.
Does he think that if the government praises itself loud and often enough citizens will start believing?
Perhaps, inadvertently, he was also making a massive admission that the system as originally proposed was unfair, unaffordable and unsustainable.
Was Ramaphosa also admitting, not in so many words, that the government’s handling of the e-toll issue had not been, responsible, responsive and sensitive to the needs of citizens?
In calling the press conference of May 20 to make this announcement, Ramaphosa was indirectly acknowledging the power of Gauteng citizens who had rendered the e-toll system dysfunctional.
In his announcement, there was a weak attempt to move away from the initial punitive approach of Sanral to a more accommodating one.
But how long will it take before the iron fist emerges from the kid glove?
In the middle of his speech, Ramaphosa delivers his coup de grâce – a merciful but violent blow to the head designed to end the suffering of the wretched.
This comes when he says, “to further simplify the process and ensure better integration of road management systems, motorists will need to settle any outstanding e-toll fees before vehicle licence discs are issued”.
How? For whom?
Rather than simplify the process, this move may complicate it, quickening our advance towards the tipping point.
For eight years, the public opposition to e-tolls has been consistent, dogged and resourceful. Various public entities have made contributions to the struggle against gantry-based e-tolls.
In February 2011, Cosatu threatened to embark on a national strike over e-tolls, prompting the then-minister of transport, S’bu Ndebele, to suspend their implementation indefinitely.
Cosatu has since led several well-supported public demonstrations against e-tolls.
In March 2012, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa), a civic organisation whose name speaks specifically to its raison d’être, applied to the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria for an interdict to stop the implementation of e-tolls.
After a brief reprieve, 19 months later in October 2013, Outa lost when the matter went to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
A range of political parties, from the EFF to the Freedom Front Plus, threw their weight behind the opposition to e-tolling. Even the Automobile Association voted in favour of a fuel levy-based payment system.
The People’s Budget Campaign – comprising Cosatu, the South African Council of Churches, and the South African NGO Coalition – followed suit.
As late as February this year, the ANC in Gauteng was itself opposed to gantry-based e-tolling, declaring after its provincial lekgotla that it would prefer a fuel levy.
Stung by the ANC’s poor showing in Gauteng in the last general elections, it was the incoming premier, David Makhura, who called for the review that precipitated the Ramaphosa announcement.
Makhura now stands the risk of losing face badly. Such is the force of the sentiment against e-tolling, indications are that the ANC may itself be divided over the matter.
And yet the Ramaphosa announcement is only the latest of several similar announcements made by government officials – Ndebele, Pravin Gordhan, David Makhura, Dipuo Peters – in the past eight years about a review, a reprieve of one sort or the other or a so-called new dispensation.
Except for minor differences, the main thrust of the Ramaphosa announcement is in some ways a rehash of the 2012 e-toll relief announcements made by then- finance minister Gordhan in his Budget speech.
What is really new is the Ramaphosa coup de grâce. Will this be the final blow that puts the dogged citizens to sleep?
While this may look like a masterstroke by the government in “forcing” compliance, for a whole host of reasons that Outa has pointed out, this intervention may spawn several adverse and unintended consequences.
It remains to be seen how a government battling to administer the car licensing system effectively, with the advent of a new Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences or Aarto system, will also be able to administer effectively the new e-toll scheme using licensing division instruments.
The linking of e-tolls to car licensing also raises the stakes and increases the opportunity for corruption.
The main point in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, Tipping Point, is the suggestion that ideas, products and behaviours ebb and flow through society like epidemics. He attempts to isolate the conditions that bring about the “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” – the tipping point.
Often the idea, the infectious gesture, the memorable utterance and the telling action that tips the scales towards a dramatic rise or collapse is small, insignificant and easy to miss.
In its handling of the e-tolls saga, has the ANC missed the Gladwellian moments that precede and lead to the tipping point?
I hope I am wrong, but I suspect that the e-toll matter is ready and able to become a proxy cause upon which will be perched a host of grievances – relevant and irrelevant to e-tolls – about which Gauteng citizens are angry with their rulers and governors.
In e-tolls we have a potential context in which an epidemic of negative sentiment towards the Gauteng government and towards the ANC may rise dramatically. When this happens, it will look sudden, but it will have been coming for eight years.
It is not as if there are differences of principle between the government and citizens about the need to pay for road infrastructure.
But citizens seem to resent deeply that they are being required to pay exorbitant fees when the government has mainly improved pre-existent roads and, crucially, has not provided real or effective alternatives for those who genuinely cannot afford to travel on the e-tolled roads.
Properly understood, the user pays principle presupposes the availability of choice.
In the absence of choice, what we have in place is not a user pays principled system, but the forcible co-option of citizens into the only available single lane.
Resentment remains also over the seemingly lucrative contracts and arrangements between the government and private third party entities that will ultimately be paid for by citizens.
The latter explains the clamour for a fuel levy. I am not convinced that the government has made the most of the Makhura review of the e-toll system. Nor am I persuaded that the ANC has really listened to the people, including its own members in Gauteng.
I fear that e-tolls may become the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.