Johannesburg. 18.10.13. One of the many gantries that will be used for e-tolling on roads in and around Johannesburg. Photo: Ian Landsberg

The anger around e-tolling has more to do with the public’s anger at the government in general, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Sometimes, a spark that started a fire gets way too much credit in the story of how a manmade disaster had begun. In reality, a longer background story and richer set of facts complete the whole story of a disaster long in the making.

What enabled the spark? If the spark was from, say, a match, who struck it, why did they strike it, and why at that moment?

The same is true of social and political events. And the e-tolls saga, handled disastrously by the government, presents a case in point.

The outrage expressed by a huge cross-section of our society at the introduction of e-tolls puzzled me initially. But no more.

It puzzled me for the rather cynical reason that governments across the world often enact bad laws. Bad laws aren’t inherently unconstitutional, though, nor even unjust. They are just stupid. But if stupid laws are annoying, though not unheard of – I thought to myself – then why the heck are South Africans being so melodramatic about this instance of bad law?

And it was particularly interesting that the sentiment was not easy to pin down: black and white, rich and poor, politically diverse citizens all moaned and groaned. What was one to make of it all?

Some of the complaints against e-tolls, such as the wastage seemingly built into the collections method, have been compelling.

Other claims, in turn, have been emotionally asserted but not well grounded, such as the contention that the policy is unjust and/or immoral. Bad laws, such as apartheid’s Immorality Act, are unjust. But a bad law is not a priori immoral or unjust. Those opposed to e-tolls have public sentiment on their side, but on this “unjust” claim they don’t have a clear argument to attach the sentiment to.

But all this puzzling on my part came to a crashing end recently when I realised that something else is going on here.

Anger about e-tolls is about much more than e-tolls. E-tolls are a spark igniting deeper dissatisfaction with the government. Dissatisfaction that has been slowly building up.

If the cost of living keeps rising but unemployment remains stubborn, inequality is deep still and poverty all too familiar, eventually an insufficiently responsive government will elicit gigantic public anger.

Add to that service delivery grievances, too many weekly stories of corruption in the state (leave aside the private sector for now), and you can see how a richer set of these background social and political facts tell you a complete story of how anger over e-tolls came about and led to civil disobedience.

E-tolls have become a symbol of the worst of our governance weaknesses.

And so I no longer puzzle about the quality of individual arguments in the e-tolls debate. The big picture is more important. The message of anger over e-tolls is that people are gatvol.

Interestingly, the government’s response is to be arrogant. A case of “damn the torpedo, full steam ahead”.

This arrogance is risky. It assumes that, 20 years into democracy, we are not yet capable of being issues-based voters.

If this is the ANC’s gamble, good luck to them in next year’s elections. They will win. But victory margins might not be sweet.

* McKaiser is the host of Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7, weekdays 9am to noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star