Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

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

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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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