E-tolls: govt can't put lipstick on this pig

Posted 26 January 2016 Written by Ciaran Ryan
Category E-tolls

It was obvious the government would pull the "rich" card in trying to defend its e-tolls boondoggle. This is a sign of its desperation, bearing in mind it has to face Gauteng voters later this year. The e-tolls protest campaign, led by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA), churches and trade unions, nearly cost the ANC its control of Gauteng last time around. So the ANC has decided to play what cards it has left, defaming the estimated 90% of Gauteng motorists who do not pay their tolls by calling them criminals. That's a strange election strategy.

It is worth recounting how the e-tolls mess came about. OUTA chairman, Wayne Duvenage, in his 2015 annual report, documents the sequence of events behind SA's most successful civil disobedience campaign since apartheid.
  • In 2013 the Department of Transport and Sanral launched e-tolls in the face of massive public opposition. Sanral threatened to criminalise those who did not pay their e-tolls, despite reports of thousands of billing errors.
  • Estimates of licence plate tampering range from 10% to 30% of the total number of cars in the country, showing the extent to which people will go to avoid e-tolls.
  • Sanral's crisis of legitimacy ran deeper, as collection costs exceeded the revenues being generated, whgich in turn affected its ability to raise borrowings on the bond market, Government would have to cover Sanral's revenue shortfall.
  • Despite Sanral’s massive multi-million rand marketing spend throughout 2014, along with their messages of intimidation and misinformation, OUTA’s research along with confirmation from statements made by the Minister of Transport in Parliament, showed that the scheme’s compliance levels peaked at around 45% in June 2014, generating R120m per month (as per Sanral’s media statements), which was well short of their original target of R250m per month, but in line with their vastly downscaled target at the time.
  • During the first half of 2014, a few concerned citizens raised complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), pertaining to Sanral’s misleading advertisements regarding their claims about (a) the number of e-tags sold, (b) that their cameras were providing safety by watching over the people and (c) that 82,8% of tagged road users would pay less that R100 per month in e-toll fees. In May 2014, the ASA found Sanral’s advertising to be unsubstantiated and misleading on all three counts and were ordered to remove these advertisements.
  • The next problem for Sanral was the massive loss of votes for the ANC in the May 2014 Gauteng elections, which very nearly cost them their majority in the provincial legislature. The ANC’s share of the vote dropped by 10 percentage points from 63% in 2009 to 53% in 2014. The main factor for this decline was recognised as the launch of e-tolls in the province, which in turn had a significant impact on the relations between provincial and national politics in the ANC. Sanral’s leadership is on record in saying they did not believe the e-toll matter would have an impact on the electorate of Gauteng. They were wrong.
  • On the 10th July 2014, the newly elected Premier of Gauteng, David Makhura, announced his plan to set up a 13 person E-Toll Advisory Panel to conduct a thorough socio-economic impact assessment of e-tolls in the region.
  • In July 2014, Sanral and the NPA had indicated their intention to begin prosecuting etoll defaulters, however, Minister Peters wisely instructed Sanral to halt such plans, because of massive billing problems and chaos in the system, and maybe also due to possible widescale negative public reaction anticipated.
  • During the Gauteng E-Toll Panel hearings between September and November 2014, virtually all business and civil society entities denounced the e-toll scheme and blamed it’s existence for high negative impact on the socio-economic conditions in the region. • In addition, on 3 October 2014, Paul Mashatile, the Gauteng ANC’s Chairperson, launched a scathing attack on Sanral’s management of the e-toll scheme and their disdain toward the work of Makhura’s e-toll advisory panel. Mashatile made it clear that the ANC in Gauteng did not support the scheme in its current form.
  • On 4 November, Sanral did an about turn and decided to engage with Makhura’s e-toll Advisory Panel, resulting in a series of blunders which heightened public anger, not least of all was Minister Dipuo Peters comment that a fuel levy increase of R3.65 would be required to fund the GFIP bonds outside of e-tolls. This intensified when Dr. Roelof Botha announced that the poor should ‘shut up’ and remain out of the e-toll debate.
  • Later in November 2014, during an inquest into a fatal accident collision on the M1, the State subpoenaed electronic data from Sanral, which required accurate input about the time of the two vehicle’s passage, as recorded by the e-toll system’s gantry cameras. The information supplied by Sanral was grossly inaccurate and proved to be “inconsistent and unreliable”. Subsequently the e-toll information was discarded as being of no meaningful use in the court case, raising serious questions about the system’s accuracy and relaibility of information. In the absence of Sanral’s ability to enforce the e-toll policy and the growing public anger amidst the various developments as mentioned above, the already strong civil disobedience campaign has expanded beyond control, with many previously compliant citizens removing 3 their e-tags to stop paying their bills. This in-turn reduced the scheme’s monthly e-toll revenue collections to around R60 million by the end of February 2015, estimated to be less than 23% of users paying for the use of the freeways.
  • OUTA’s submission to the e-Toll advisory panel on 2nd September 2014, provided an opportunity for the organization to update to its earlier research and position paper titled “E-Tolling at an Impasse”, published in February 2014. OUTA’s updated paper, now titled “Beyond the Impasse” and published in August 2014, added further research and a clearer articulation of our case against e-tolling. It was submitted as OUTA’s input and formed part of its presentation to Makhura’s Advisory Panel on E-Tolls. In addition, OUTA produced and submitted a document titled “OUTA’s Rule of Law Campaign” which emphasised that notwithstanding the past legal judgments that set aside OUTA’s legal challenge to halt the scheme, the authorities faced a significant challenge if and when they ever decided to prosecute any member of the public for non-payment of e-tolls. In this regard, we maintain that the e-toll scheme’s policies had become illegitimate and unenforceable.
  • The E-Toll Advisory Panel: Good work but disappointing recommendations. Having heard the input from the Gauteng residents and businesses, the Panel compiled its comprehensive report, which was presented to Premier Makhura on 15th January 2015. Despite the overwhelming rejection of the scheme by almost all submissions made to the panel, and their acknowledgement of Sanral’s failure to conduct a meaningful public engagement program, plus the disproportionately negative impact of the e-tolling on the poor, the Advisory panel recommended that e-tolling should remain a major part of the GFIP funding process. Cosatu, OUTA and other organisations rejected the recommendations because of this internal contradiction. Given that Sanral and the Minister of Transport’s attitude to the panel’s process had shifted from aloof disregard at the beginning to active embrace at the end, we suspected that behind the scenes, political forces were at play to enable the final report to show that the initial lack of consultation had now been remedied by the Gauteng government’s retrospective consultation process, with proposed modifications to the funding model. 
This is not going to end well for the government so long as it defies the will of the majority of residents of Gauteng. It cannot enforce an grossly unworkable system of questionable legality. It can rant and insult all it wants, but this pig looks no better with lipstick on its face.

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