Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why I love e-tolls (and you should too)


CEOs are not the sort of people we usually pay much attention to. Unless you’re Steve Jobs, excitement about corporate reshuffling doesn’t extend much beyond the business community. Except when you’re CEO of the most hated organisation in South Africa right now. Then you become the top trending topic on Twitter and everybody is happy you’re gone.

nazir alli

Anyhow, confession time. It’s sacrilege, I know, but I have outrage fatigue. Specifically, e-toll outrage fatigue. I don’t want to cough up any more than anyone else does but my capacity for righteous anger has been drained. I can only doff my cap to those who, as in this post-judgment video, continue to fight the good fight.

That said, I do appreciate what e-tolls have done for us as a society. They’re the best thing we’ve had since the 2010 World Cup, because everyone hates them. Very few other causes can bring together Cosatu, the DA and the FF+, all in opposition to an ANC government initiative. Castle Lager should run ads featuring demographically representative groups of wholesome okes raising a glass under their local gantry.

E-tolls are an excellent nation-building tool because everybody hates them. Common enemies are much more effective tools for creating unity than a hero or a suitably noble cause. In fact, that’s why international sport is so good at overcoming difference, because there’s an external adversary. As George Orwell once observed, sport is war without the shooting. Even if we hate each other, we hate e-tolls more. Enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that.

E-tolls are the perfect common enemy for several reasons.

They’re easy to understand.
Drive your vehicle on the highway, kak en betaal. This is an easy concept to grasp. (Something which, incidentally, applies to Twitter, and why tweets are able to generate outrage a la Jessica the way they do: they’re conveniently packaged soundbytes, there in black and white.)

They’re easy to define.
Unlike the relatively amorphous issues of corruption or lack of delivery, they’re focused in a small geographic area, and they have an identifiable physical dimension. Every time we drive under a gantry or see a sign listing the charges, we see a steel embodiment of something we all dislike and physical things are much easier to hate than abstract ideas.

They affect everyone.
Obviously not anyone who lives outside of Gauteng but within the borders of our fair province everybody uses the highway. So everybody feels equally aggrieved.

They’re safe to hate.
Debates about crime and corruption invariably end up being racialised. So e-tolls are a proxy for the more complex, more politicised issues. Nobody can haul you to the South African Human Rights Commission for hating e-tolls. Cosatu’s campaigning gives the middle class the assurance that the issue has the support of the masses, which gives it a watertight legitimacy.

Is the opposition to e-tolls a defining moment in our history, an example of how we can use people power to bend the government to our will, or is it merely a blip in a larger trend toward the consolidation of power and the entrenchment of a gangster state? Even if it’s the latter, it’s served to remind us that we are capable of agreeing on a common interest regardless of race, class or political affiliation.

At a time when the nation is sorely lacking in a sense of unity and purpose, the campaign against e-tolling has done us the world of good. If we didn’t have e-tolls, we’d have to invent them.

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    • Benzo

      @Mike venter: “Yes, yes I know the answer…..”

      grabbin people by the brains does not make them respond, grab the daily wallet….. and they will :-)

    • James Petersn

      @ Phillip Cole – The real problem is that there is no adequate public transport. Are you a frequent user of taxis? In my area in CT, they just upgraded the bus system to be neat, clean, and safe. Automatically 1000s of people took the bus, and yes many white professionals too. I agree, peoples minds need to shift to public transport, but you cant penalize them for having no other option. JHB is not New York, it’s not London. Apply the infrastructure, and people will automatically follow and use it. Only then can you check the need for tolling on the roads. One might find that there is no need after all if half the commuters took public transport? Did they oversee this fact? Or is it a scam?

    • Gumrol

      Great article!

      @James Petersn I agree with you fully.

    • The Creator

      There are very good reasons for challenging a secretive private company’s project to sell a province’s freeways to a secretive private company and then impose exorbitant fees for the privilege. All the supporters of e-tolling, almost without exception, are neoliberal corporatist apologists. This is important from the perspective of democracy and of economic justice.

      The grim fact is that the unity around e-tolling is wholly superficial. It’s based on a well-founded distrust for SANRAL and a grave doubt about the competence and integrity of the people involved in the issue, as well as fear of something new being used against us. However, there’s been very little real political campaigning around the issue — just political entities trying to exploit the distrust.

      So this article is a nice joke, but the tragedy is that e-tolling is an important symptom of a horrible disease which is about to consume us — a disease which nobody seems to want to take seriously.

    • MLH

      @ Phillip Cole: spoken by a man who can afford it!

      In Durban, there is no decent public transport to speak of in many areas where car ownership is traditional. People must always have options before such an enterprise can be feasible. Yet plans are afoot to etoll and already tolled highway.
      I suggested a couple of days ago that they could toll some lanes of the improved (but not new) highways in Gauteng and at least retrieve something towards their debt, only to be told that this is what was originally planned.
      Why did the plan change? Overruns? Fraud, corruption? This is what people want to know before they are forcibly committed to bankruptcy.

    • Philip Cole

      James Petersn

      All good points but I don’t think that we fundamentally disagree. Clearly SA’s public transport system is sub-standard and this is due to both the apartheid inheritance and insufficient investment, until recently, under democracy.

      This is now thankfully being corrected but it takes time to build up a decent public transport system. In the meantime there will clearly be a difficult period while charges are rightly shifted to private and road transport on the principle of ‘user pays’. People will understandably complain of poor alternatives to private transport while the public transport system is being built.

      But the government’s fundamental approach is both correct and long overdue. We’re beginning to see some of the fruit from this approach, as you note from the Bus Rapid Transit System in Cape Town. Rail investment will also improve services over the next five years and will also shift commuters away from the roads.

      The approach in cities of improved rail services, bus rapid transit and feeder services by minibus taxis is a good one and, I think, has been negotiated well in the way that it keeps an important role for the taxis. E tolling is a necessary part of this shift to public transport that will, I suggest, give us a very different transport system in the next decade.

    • Steffi G

      Hayi bo Dave Harris! You come across an an unhappy chap! A dose of prozac for you perhaps?

    • CJ

      @ Dave Harris


    • The Creator

      With all respect, Phillip Cole, you don’t transfer transport costs to private industry in order to build up a public transport system. It seems quite clear, on the contrary, that e-tolling is a privatisation system which is the opposite of the light-rail public transport which Johannesburg and other centres used to have, and which was destroyed to make way for cars.

    • Nicola

      @Philip Cole

      Agree 100%

      What really gets me though is how this system was announced 4 years ago, and only once all the roads have been upgraded, the gantries lit up and the newly hired SANRAL employees are waiting at their posts, do people start protesting.

      Worse still are the opposition political parties jumping on the bandwagon this late in the day pretending they knew nothing of this four years ago.

      I’m all for civil society flexing its muscle, but please people, do so in a timely manner. We’re all going to end up paying a lot more for this in the end because of the delays. Every day the interest on the loans is growing.

    • J

      The public transport system in SA is dismal. @ Phill Cole, ya spot on with public transport, but a toll system is not necessary. The govt could have spent the billions it spent to build the system on public transport instead! The highways might be in bad condition, but hoorah there is public transport for everyone, rich and poor! The people come first, more importantly, the poor need to come first!
      Yes money from tolls could be redirected to build public transport, but why not build the public transport in the first place!

      South Africa is the most unequal society on the planet! Research that! Thats why there is crime etc, simple man! South Africans (not all, but alot) are the most materialistic, show-off people I know, and they do it while their neighbour is in poverty..its not brain surgery why there is rampant crime and corruption.
      If everyone was less worried about keeping up with the latest LV trends and more on being equal with our neighbours something positive will happen! Unless the plight of the poor are not helped soon, communities will continue to go gang busters! I don’t care if share prices drop or if SA becomes less internationally competitive, what kak! If people are in poverty, people are in poverty! Unless there is a magic wand producing houses and food at the JSX?? Oh thats right there is….the magic wand hand of the market…its not magic….people control it…

    • Jack Sparrow

      Philip Cole you have a limited understanding of what the tolls will do, putting aside the suspect deals that have led to them. Great, toll the heavies. Do you think they will simply absorb the costs? No, they’ll pass them on to the consumers, rich and poor, plus a bit for luck.

    • Dave Harris

      Eish man Steffi G! Missing my LOLs? 😉

    • AL

      Brilliant article – sublime!!! Well done. Read the headline, was outraged, thought you had lost your marbles (irrational aircraft choices aside) and ended up laughing my head off. Just explains why you are my favorite blogger/columnist. Bravo and Encore!!

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      Philip Cole,

      A growing number of us have been permanently ‘retrenched’ from the regular full time employed nine to five daily commute as the most imperative aspect of a herd life (though COSATU seems to think this must be everyone’s only option)

      Public transport?….NOT INTERESTED.

      Public transport does not go where I want to go, when I want to go there, not in the prosecution of my business as a necessarily self employed person due in no small part to results of public policy, and not significantly at any other time either, no matter how ‘good’ it gets.

      Our urban environment has for decades been zoned and structured around private transportation (for those enjoying formal housing anyway) and is now incompatible with a predominantly public transportation system.

      Let’s tear down the whole thing down and re engineer it in accordance with some centrally planned Bolshevik utopia?

      In case you were unaware, we have a socialised road system, meaning the state has an exclusive mandate and monopoly thereupon in our ‘developmental social democracy’.

      It is not the improvement project per se which is at issue but specifically the funding model ( tolling) which will incur additional publicly funded liabilities and ongoing costs which were not essential to the improvement itself.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      The Creator

      This is not ‘Privatisation’ at all.

      SANRAL is a creation of the state, it’s ‘authority’ to tax devolves from government, and the government is it’s sole shareholder.

      SANRAL is a government institution, not a so called ‘independent’ agency and its employees are effectively unelected state bureaucrats.

      There is absolutely nothing ‘private’ about it, and the tolling operations are a taxation vehicle mandated and operated by the state with public funding.

    • Oldfox

      IF e-tolling of urban roads was the only way to make the roads viable THEN this would be done worldwide. Countries normally only toll inter city highways, e.g. USA, China. There are countries with good roads that do not toll any roads.

    • Trevor

      @ Phillip Cole @ Nicola – Really? Tell me Phillip and Nicola, what happened to all the fuel levies and taxes that I paid for development of infrastructure in South Africa? Tell me Phillip, if e-tolls are there to encourage the use of public transport being used then WHY didn’t they rather invest those BILLIONS on creating a proper public transport system? Extend the Gautrain, start a decent bus service, upgrade the metro rails etc, according to your theory, if you want someone to follow a certain system you should make the current system unaffordable? I suppose you would be happy if the petrol price doubled or tripled within one month in order for people to start using electric cars? Some people like you Phillip might say “Yes! electric cars are better for the environment!” but then other people who have common sense will say “Yes Phillip but electric cars aren’t really freely available, they difficult to procure and 99.99% of automotive companies don’t really support that technology so no, you’ll land up paying the higher price for petrol because there is no viable alternative JUST LIKE THERE IS NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE TO E-TOLLING” Main point is, the SA government should have used my taxes and fuel levy funds to upgrade our roads. How do you think all the roads in the country got there in the first place Phillip? There weren’t e-tolls before.. But no, the ANC will rather spend our tax money on R50 000 worth of fast food a month, fly in private planes and dine in 5…

    • george

      Hating the e-toll system is understandable if one looks at it as another shameful way to steal millions through waste,overcharging and inflated costing.
      However,lets look at the reality,this is a cutting edge crime fighting tool and statistical revenue collection method that is still to be fully developed and applied not only here in south africa but worldwide. We have already seen the high number of cloned vehicles exposed,this system has barely scratched the surface to the wide organized criminal element operating in this country and the benefits of exposing such will soon be realized,data can be shared amongst law enforcement agencies and there has been NO greater technological advancement since facial recognition technology that the system currently used by SANRAL,the gantries are not so elaborate just to make them look imposing,this is high tech stuff the likes of which not many countries have as this is THE latest stuff
      The toll fees and other related cost objections are purely penny pinching and granted are a subject to much debate as surely the toll fees can be reduced and spread over a longer period and SANRAL can look for other ways to raise revenue considering its system can do so much more than just count km/rand figures.
      Sadly the overall benefit of a brilliant system like the e-toll will be lost to many and we will only feel the bitter taste of toll fees because crime fighting is never a real priority