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Sanral’s new best friends

Once upon a time, e-tolls galvanised society. Like no other cause before or since, the hatred of e-tolls cut across class, politics and race. They were a superb nation-building tool, something I reflected on here.

But things have changed. When e-tolls were finally implemented in early December, the battle was lost. Quite possibly the war, too, judging by the number of people signing on. (Sanral claims that just under one million e-tags have been registered.)

I can understand why: e-tolls are a reality now, and a lot of people are betting that it’s cheaper to get the tag and at least have some certainty than have to wait for threatening SMSs and who knows what.

That’s what motivated me, in part, to queue at an e-tolls customer centre kiosk at a shopping centre in Sunninghill today. Initially, I’d vowed to avoid the highways or just not pay. I’d driven under goodness knows how many gantries. But I was in my grandmother’s car at the time and, not wanting an 88-year-old woman to field queries from Sanral, I went to sort out what was owing.

Now, I’m not usually a spineless goody two-shoes; in general, I favour procrastination over compliance. I haven’t paid my TV licence, mainly because I don’t own a TV. And I’d have been more open to a bit of LeadSA-sanctioned civil disobedience if it was entirely up to me, but my family asked me to make sure I was up to date with e-toll payments. Those close social ties are much more of a motivator than the weak ties of social media or the comments facility.

So off I went. I waited more than 20 minutes — an A4 sign in the window informed customers that the system was slow — and busied myself by checking on the various social media accounts I manage. The Sanral employee I eventually dealt with was perfectly pleasant, the process itself was quick, and I was charged less than I had anticipated: just under R24.

What was less pleasant was the response to my tweets about what I was doing. The mockery was something I expected:

But being threatened with vandalism?

etolls vandalism

Even if this person doesn’t know my car registration, this kind of response is so out of touch with what might be considered sane, reasonable behaviour that perhaps a stint in Sterkfontein with the fake interpreter is in order.

Oh, I knew that I was taking a chance by tweeting about paying e-tolls. Keeping quiet would have been the sensible thing to do, but sensible has never been my strong suit. Since I’m honest about a lot of things in my life, I didn’t see why I should exclude this just because some felt that I was letting down the side — that somehow, my decision to pay what was owing (I didn’t sign up for an e-tag) threatened all of us.

Responses like this are a form of bullying and just as bad as the threats issued from Sanral themselves.

And yes, Sanral is easy to hate. They might not, technically, be a four-letter word, but they might as well be. Here’s the thing though. When some self-righteous Twitter follower threatens me with violence, I start to wonder about anti-e-toll hardliners. I start to think that Sanral isn’t all that bad. When a brand is perceived as a bully, the best thing that can happen is that it gets picked on by the kind of people who earn little sympathy. Woolworths was public enemy number one after the Frankies debacle, but then the Halaal hot-cross buns came along and saved the day.

That’s the same reason that the Westboro Baptist Church is the best thing ever happened to gay rights, because it forced fence-sitters into the middle through the sheer insanity of its extremism.

If I were Sanral, I’d be thrilled at this development. From a perception-management point of view, this kind of crass peer pressure is a gift. Vusi and Nazir, meet your new best friends.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. Matt Black Matt Black 9 January 2014

    Sanrals biggest problem at the moment, and biggest barrier to changing peoples perception is a technological one. If they can patch up the security holes in their site and develop a way to give users itemised bills of which gantries they passed under and when.
    Added to that, sort out the billing crisis. Cell phone companies do both of these things, so surely SANRAL can get it right.

  2. john b patson john b patson 9 January 2014

    Am I the only one to rather see this as a result of instant “social” media sites, where (as with comment boxes on web news sites) things are often published without the normal filters people use in conversation or when writing on paper?
    I know they give many advertising types (no name, no pack drill) a reasonable income but sometimes the rough means the smooth is not worth it.

  3. C C 9 January 2014

    One – or ten – overzealous individuals should not be a reason to throw out principle. My take is that citizens are feeling far removed from our constitutional democratic freedoms by having very little say in how we are governed; by having an overwhelming and sensible public sentiment against etolling ignored; and this is compounded by the verbose and bully-boy communications coming from SANRAL. They are hitting the wrong note. That’s a sure sign of desperation. I vicariously forgive you for paying your R24 etoll bill, especially since you did not get tagged :)

  4. Moninsane Moninsane 9 January 2014

    Well, I do not support vandalism simply because someone bought an E-Tag. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that anyone who decides to get tagged is an absolute moron.

    All you have to do to see why it is a horrible idea is brows HelloPeter for SANRAL complaints and see the misery and frustration SANRAL’s incompetence has caused.

    I fully intend to pay my Toll bill as soon as I receive a detailed invoice in the post, listing every single gantry pass I made with photographic evidence for every single gatry pass – short of that I will refuse to pay as I have no way of ascertaining whether the amount owed is accurate.

    I will never register with SANRAL, as their T’s & C’s are bloody ridiculous, and I believe the whole E-Tolling system to be unconstitutional, and detrimental to the welfare of the people of South Africa.

    It will cause the price of basic necessities to sky-rocket, which will lead to more unemployment, which in turn leads to more money spent on welfare projects, which in turn will lead to more money being allocated from funds that were supposed to go towards road maintenance and other essential projects.

    The whole thing is a disaster in the making, and the powers that be does not seem to care about the damage they cause. All they see is the dollar signs in front of their eyes, not caring about how their decisions affect the people they are supposed to govern.

    If E-Tolls are not stopped, it will be the beginning of the end for South Africa.

  5. Sydney Sydney 9 January 2014

    I’m disappointed with you on two counts. Let me hasten to say though that I don’t agree with any threats whatsoever, so even though I violently disagree with your drumming up support for SANRAL on etolls, no one should vandalize your grandma’s car.

    I’m disappointed because like so many people, you have taken Thamsanqa Jantjies’ mental illness as some sort of a joke. How disappointing. Your earlier piece on his “eloquence” had made me think that to a certain extent you sympathized with the man, after all he did not choose to be mentally ill. If you are still finding his efforts at getting treatment funny(Sterkfontein) then the joke is on you. And please try to refer to him by name Sarah, not just a “fake interpreter”.

    The second reason I’m disappointed in you is because you claim not to be “spineless” yet you have chosen to be amongst the first to cave in to SANRAL’s bullying, and you are hiding behind an 88-year-old lady to disguise your caving in. I believe that all drivers in Gauteng who honestly want to protest against etolls by not getting a tag will not advance reasons why SANRAL might be such a sweetie after all. On a public platform nogal! Because you are doing their bidding now please help me understand why we needed our money to go to an Austrian company for roads in Gauteng. I believe this is legalised corruption and refuse to pay. I will not hide behind my grandma.

  6. Dean Dean 9 January 2014

    I think what is more concerning is that you view SANRAL as being not “that bad” after someone sent you a threat of vandalism. I’d like to know why exactly you are driving your grandmother’s car around anyway.

    People are extremely angry, you need to understand that fully. We did not ask for this, we did not want it. We, as the people were not even consulted on it. We protested and we gave our feedback. Our ‘government’ ignored us, it pushed through a measure that is so blatantly stupid it defies belief. So you tell me, if you were involved in every aspect and your gov told you to STFU and pay, would you be happy to do so?

    Vandalism is not right, but do you blame the people? They have not been heard nor consulted. Money is literally p*ssed away on stupid things while the majority of the country sits in poverty. Etolls is the final straw for many and all they ask is a united front against this. Besides, how many people told you that they would vandalise your car? Did all of your followers say that or just a handful?

  7. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 9 January 2014

    I will not buy an e-tag and I will not register with Scamral. I also would NEVER borrow someone’s car and leave them with debt. The idea of your poor gran having to deal with this is just too cruel – paying for using our ‘sold to Austria’ (not) freeway was your only option.

    Just keep in mind that you are now ‘in the system’ and you are in for one hell of a bad time. Lotsa luck.

  8. Gillian Schutte Gillian Schutte 9 January 2014

    I rest my case …

  9. Bruce Gordon Bruce Gordon 10 January 2014

    When I read your tweet yesterday I had the impression you were getting tagged, as did that thug Alister Fiend. I was disappointed but must support you are the concept of not forcing an 88 year old to be in the front line of a protest that is dear to so many (who didn’t protest far more important things!)

    It is brave of you to pay up quickly without tagging – you are in essence protesting against the thuggery of SANRAL and paying a premium for it. Not many of the noise makers are doing that.

    On the matter of having lost – I disagree with you on that. I understand that in Portugal the system is collapsing with a 70% registration rate – no ways we are near that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the system being abandoned (for failure) just before the elections and spun as a “we hear you and are closing the eTolls”.

    Alister Fiend was hoping you would have a tag on your car – the thug claims to scratch tagged vehicles. So you have no worries there.

  10. Samantha Samantha 10 January 2014

    I thought Sanral’s new best friends were Werksmans Attorneys. Bloody agents.

  11. Sarah Sarah 10 January 2014

    @Sydney, I agree with you about the ‘interpreter guy’, and at Sarah’s post on the matter I even stated that I find that she linked the jokes in poor taste. However, @Sarah, it’s a free country, pay your tolls if you feel it’s the right thing…

  12. Fanta K Fanta K 10 January 2014

    Good one Sarah.
    Many have failed to understand that toll roads have been around since ancient times. Furthermore its a sound economic pay-per-use model.
    The absurd brouhaha over e-tolls and bullying (as you’ve experienced on twitter) is illogical for a reason. Here in SA though, a certain section of the population see e-tolls as the perfect excuse to launch their petty political agenda. So when things don’t make a whole lot of sense, you know its just politics.

  13. Balt Verhagen Balt Verhagen 10 January 2014

    Balt Verhagen#

    Sarah, the well-formulated comments thusfar have adequately dealt with your throwing your toys out of the cot.

    One aspect of Sanral’s intrinsic behaviour problem with e-tolling – as with Sanral’s general tolling behaviour- is their downplaying of the universal principle of toll roads : the existence and clear and credible signposting of alternate routes. When tolling was started in South Africa decades ago, some attempt was made in this direction, but I have seen few alternate route signs recently.

    On new year’s day my wife and I drove to eastern Pretoria using the Modderfontein Road and the R57, a clear (but not signposted!) alternate and parallel to the e-tolled R21 . Just north of Tembisa a big ROAD CLOSED sign caused many cars to hesitate and turn back. I followed the few that pressed on up to yellow barriers across the roadway. Following a rough, vehicle-maintained detour around them I had a good look: underneath concrete blocks placed between them; the tarmac surface was in perfect condition with some perfunctory digging away from the road itself.

    This telling personal experience of the lengths to which this goverrnment-aligned privatisation scheme is prepared to go to force us to pay even more for upgrading long-existing road structures and exporting large chunks of the loot has firmly entrenched my resolve to shun and frustrate it where-ever possible.

    As for you Sarah – Enjoy your love affair with your e-tag in your granny’s car.

  14. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 10 January 2014

    It is like saying you hate Australia because you met Russell Crowe.

    The eTolling solution is a bad one. So much so that people are willing to stand strong and oppose it. As normal, there are some that take it too far, and hopefully they realise the error of their ways some day.

    But you now say that the entire debate is over because you have been on the wrong side of a social media rant? Surely not. Surely the merits of the eTolls opposition are still valid irrespective of how many people have tags, and how many people scratch cars of those who do.

  15. Jans de J Jans de J 10 January 2014

    I used to live in joburg and while I never really used any routes that are tolled, except when leaving town, I agree with Sarah that vandalism is an extreme reaction to law-abiders. They have not sold out, they just want to take the path of least resistance. Nobody will doubt your steadfast opposition to etolls, and you are welcome to stay away from the gantries lest you are arrested on the highway, without anybody doubting your devotion to the cause.

  16. mundundu mundundu 11 January 2014

    in some states in the US, you get a speeding ticket along with your receipt for having paid the toll when you leave a toll road. all they need to do is check the time stamp when you entered the toll road, look at the clock, determine you were way over the speed limit in order to have gotten to point B at the time you have, and boom! a speeding ticket that you can’t really contest.

    look to get speeding fines deducted from your etoll accounts in the next 5-10 years.

    [you read it here first.]

  17. Marc Marc 11 January 2014

    When ever I think of Sanral, I understand why they wanted a liar like Vusi Mona to speak for them.

    Quoted from
    At a stage during the proceedings a clearly irritated Hefer asked Mona whether he knew that he was testifying under oath.
    Mona : Yes
    Hefer : Do you know what the truth is?
    Mona : Yes
    Hefer : Do you know what the whole truth is?
    Mona : Yes
    But it was his admissions under cross-examination that accounted for the most damaging accusations hurled at Mona. It enabled Arendse to call him reckless.
    It allowed Naidu to accuse him of publishing smut.
    It enabled Moerane to say to him “You are a disgrace to journalism!”

    Mona admitted that he had not “applied” his “mind” to the journalistic rules applicable to the verification of information before reports are published.

    For Sanral, seeing Vusi was love at first sight. “You’re our kind of guy!”

  18. Karlito Karlito 12 January 2014

    Come Now! Cause one person responded like an idiot one cannot change their mind to such an extent. Seems like you are trying to find justifications for your own actions…Let’s be honest here…

  19. amandzing amandzing 23 January 2014


    I bought my e-tag at PnP, phoned Sanrals help line to register, and it was done in minutes.

    I’ve received an itemised account from them each month so far, whether or not I’ve used the toll roads.

    I do feel as though a gun is being held to my head, but I can’t afford the double fees, and life is too short to battle over this.

  20. Doug Parker Doug Parker 31 January 2014

    Well done Sarah.

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