TALK TO US
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
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