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et there be no doubt that the rag­ing e-tolls saga is the big­gest and most im­por­tant public-pol­icy mat­ter since the wa­ter­shed 1994 elec­tions – and how it is go­ing to be fi­nally re­solved will have se­ri­ous long-term im­pli­ca­tions for our con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy and civil so­ci­ety.

More than enough has been said about the se­ri­ous prob­lems it has posed from the out­set. The de­bate must now shift to what course of ac­tion civil so­ci­ety needs to con­sider and take – and the sooner the bet­ter.

The de­ci­sion to com­pel the pay­ment of e-tolls by link­ing them to the re­newal of car li­cences is noth­ing less than a crafty and de­plorable tac­tic that will lead to greater anger among mo­torists.

Be­sides, Wayne Du­ve­nage, gallant chair­per­son of the Op­po­si­tion to Ur­ban Tolling Al­liance, made a most strik­ing and com­pelling ar­gu­ment. He said the re­duced tar­iffs were not as gen­er­ous as Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa made them out to be and gov­ern­ment had merely re­moved the puni­tive tar­iff. “The re­duced tar­iff from R450 to R225 per month only ap­plies to less than 10% of mo­torists, as more than 90% of users would not have ex­ceeded the cap in the past any­way,” said Du­ve­nage.

The irony is that what was sup­posed to be a new dis­pen­sa­tion is prob­a­bly go­ing to rapidly es­ca­late this mat­ter to a crit­i­cal “tip­ping point”, which might ig­nite the big­gest civil so­ci­ety protests on the streets of Johannesburg, dwarf­ing even the huge mass marches or­gan­ised against e-tolling by labour fed­er­a­tion Cosatu last year.

But there is another course of ac­tion civil so­ci­ety must de­mand – gov­ern­ment must agree to hold a ref­er­en­dum on e-tolls in Gaut­eng to set­tle the mat­ter once and for all.

What right does Ramaphosa have to dis­miss out of hand the pos­si­bil­ity of a ref­er­en­dum to re­solve this very con­tentious, con­tro­ver­sial and com­bustible public-in­ter­est mat­ter? Our Con­sti­tu­tion makes pro­vi­sion for ref­er­en­dums.

Ramaphosa does so pre­cisely be­cause he knows the likely out­come will be a re­sound­ing rejection of e-tolls in their cur­rent form, in­clud­ing his latest be­guil­ing tac­tic of link­ing e-tolls to car li­cences. There is no more im­por­tant pub­licin­ter­est mat­ter than e-tolls right now to take a demo­cratic de­ci­sion on, and the only way to re­li­ably test their public cred­i­bil­ity is through a ref­er­en­dum.

If gov­ern­ment is con­fi­dent of the ne­ces­sity and fair­ness of e-tolls, it should have no prob­lem agree­ing to a ref­er­en­dum. A ref­er­en­dum has never been held in post-apartheid South Africa, and since there is a chasm that sep­a­rates gov­ern­ment from civil so­ci­ety on e-tolls, it could be the best way to test sup­port and also how ro­bust and com­bat­ive our democ­racy is or can and should be.

But we have seen the ANC shoot­ing it­self in the foot so many times that it has be­come cyn­i­cal – and lu­di­crous to watch. Af­ter los­ing so much sup­port in Gaut­eng in last year’s na­tional elec­tions to the op­po­si­tion – es­pe­cially since there can be no doubt the e-tolling sys­tem was prob­a­bly a ma­jor rea­son for this out­come – it is forc­ing it through once again de­spite mas­sive public op­po­si­tion. There can now be no doubt this is prob­a­bly go­ing to cause the ANC – es­pe­cially if it blud­geons its way through mass op­po­si­tion in the com­ing pe­riod and re­fuses to re­fer the mat­ter to a ref­er­en­dum – to lose more sup­port in next year’s lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions.

A very in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment is tak­ing place in the bat­tle against e-tolls. There has not been such unity across race and class on a public-in­ter­est mat­ter since 1994, and es­pe­cially since it is tak­ing place in the nerve cen­tre of our econ­omy, Johannesburg, its sig­nif­i­cance is en­hanced. We must not un­der­es­ti­mate the huge public and po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance such unity can have for civil so­ci­ety and our con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy.

Given our history of deep race and class di­vi­sions, this unity is a pow­er­ful demon­stra­tion that there are im­por­tant public-in­ter­est is­sues that can unite peo­ple across race and class and, in this case, draw in not only the work­ing and mid­dle class, but also the wealthy.

It is worth re­mind­ing the ANC that we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the most dev­as­tat­ing so­cial cri­sis in post-apartheid South Africa. It has taken a heavy toll on the work­ing and mid­dle classes as far as the cost of liv­ing is con­cerned, and e-toll costs will make life harder.

This city, which has been con­quered and ex­ploited by cap­i­tal many times in its history, will not be taken in easily by prof­i­teer­ing in­ter­ests, ei­ther through lo­cal or for­eign com­pa­nies, or a de­clin­ing gov­ern­ing party that will soon be ea­gerly so­lic­it­ing the votes of its cit­i­zens in the up­com­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions.

Will the anger against e-tolls cost the ANC in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Gaut­eng next year? Does it re­ally af­fect the poor

neg­a­tively?

Har­vey is a po­lit­i­cal writer, com­men­ta­tor and au­thor he new deal on e-tolls in Gaut­eng con­tains sev­eral fea­tures to mit­i­gate the im­pact on lower-in­come house­holds in the province. An al­most 50% re­duc­tion in toll fees for reg­is­tered users, a lower monthly cap and the con­tin­u­ing ex­emp­tion of taxis and public trans­port con­trib­ute to a sys­tem that is eq­ui­table and sig­nif­i­cantly fairer than any of the other al­ter­na­tives pro­posed by crit­ics.

Af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of the e-toll sys­tem, the Gaut­eng pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment raised con­cerns about its im­pact on the poor. Premier David Makhura ap­pointed an ad­vi­sory panel to con­duct another round of public con­sul­ta­tions, speak to com­mu­ni­ties and lis­ten to their con­cerns.

Roads agency San­ral did not agree with all of the panel’s con­clu­sions – es­pe­cially in cases where the vol­ume and qual­ity of ob­jec­tive re­search con­tra­dicted the ob­ser­va­tions made by e-tolling crit­ics.

How­ever, we were part of the task team led by Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa to find a last­ing so­lu­tion to the im­passe.

Per­cep­tions about e-tolling plac­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate bur­den on the poor are worse than the re­al­ity. The ad­vi­sory panel’s re­port shows the per­cent­age of the to­tal fi­nan­cial bur­den on low-in­come peo­ple is only 0.4%. Our re­search in­di­cates that 98% of the users of e-tolled roads are mid­dle- and higher-in­come earn­ers. This is based on ac­tual data, not anec­do­tal ev­i­dence or aca­demic sce­nario plan­ning.

In the past, we said the sam­ple size used by the ad­vi­sory panel to reach its con­clu­sions was too small to be sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant. Of­ten, com­plaints about the cost im­pacts of tolling were raised or in­flu­enced by or­gan­ised lobby groups, many of them with a po­lit­i­cal agenda.

The e-toll sys­tem is the only one with a built-in mech­a­nism to shield tar­geted com­mu­ni­ties and cat­e­gories of com­muters from the im­pact of ris­ing trans­port costs. The im­por­tance of ex­empt­ing reg­is­tered taxis and public bus op­er­a­tors from e-tolls should not be un­der­es­ti­mated in a province like Gaut­eng, where more than 68% of peo­ple use taxis as their pri­mary mode of trans­port.

Pro­gres­sive taxi as­so­ci­a­tions such as San­taco saw the ben­e­fits in e-tolling at an early stage and urged its mem­bers to register and qual­ify for the ex­emp­tion.

Per­haps the time has come for the pas­sen­gers to put pres­sure on own­ers and as­so­ci­a­tions to register and not to use e-tolls as an ex­cuse to raise fares.

A re­cent, com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey by Stats SA clearly in­di­cated the ex­tent to which public trans­port was used by Gaut­eng com­muters. It also listed the most press­ing prob­lems ex­pe­ri­enced daily.

Across all five ma­jor met­ros in Gaut­eng, the “non­avail­abil­ity of buses” was listed as the sin­gle big­gest con­cern (12.5%) fol­lowed by “reck­less driv­ing by taxi op­er­a­tors” (10.3%) and ex­pen­sive taxi fares (9.5%). Toll fees were at the bot­tom of the list of is­sues, with only 2.9% of the sur­vey’s par­tic­i­pants list­ing it as their top con­cern.

For poor and lower-in­come house­holds, the user-pays prin­ci­ple is a more ac­cept­able way to pay for our world-class road in­fra­struc­ture. The al­ter­na­tive of an in­crease in the fuel levy has a pop­ulist ring to it, but it will have a wider and deeper im­pact on the poor, as it cas­cades through the sys­tem and re­sults in higher trans­port costs and prices for food and ba­sic com­modi­ties.

What is for­got­ten – per­haps con­ve­niently – is that what is col­lected from road users through the fuel levy is re­al­lo­cated back to road trans­port users in full, so no ad­di­tional rev­enue is avail­able from the cur­rent fuel levy.

In 2014/15, the al­lo­ca­tion for roads across all spheres of gov­ern­ment was R44 bil­lion, with an ad­di­tional R4.9 bil­lion for public trans­port in­fra­struc­ture and R7.1 bil­lion for public trans­port sub­si­dies, re­sult­ing in a to­tal al­lo­ca­tion of R56 bil­lion.

What was col­lected from the fuel levy in the same year was R46 bil­lion. If the fuel levy has to be ring-fenced, then an ad­di­tional R2.17 per litre of fuel will be re­quired to deal with the back­log in build­ing the coun­try’s roads. Given the in­dis­crim­i­nate na­ture of the fuel levy, it would af­fect the poor.

Tolling has flex­i­ble el­e­ments that al­low gov­ern­ment to ex­empt cer­tain cat­e­gories from pay­ment, re­duce costs through lower tar­iffs and in­tro­duce other cost-sav­ing mea­sures, such as lower off-peak rates. This is in stark con­trast to the more rigid fuel-levy sys­tem.

The Gaut­eng Free­way Im­prove­ment Pro­ject had to hap­pen. Its ben­e­fits are there for all to see. The ques­tion is how to pay for it. We are con­vinced the cur­rent model is rel­a­tively the best, as it cush­ions the poor.

Mona is com­mu­ni­ca­tions head at San­ral

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