William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

A nation tires of e-toll whingers

Now that Nelson Mandela is gone, there will be no end of people claiming to know exactly what his opinion would have been on every conceivable issue. Invariably, it will coincide with the opinion that they, too, hold.

But while I can’t honestly hazhard Madiba’s opinion on e-tolls, I do sense a growing irritation among us non-Gautengers. We’re sick of the e-toll activists’ pathetic whinging. Pay your bloody e-tolls and get over it.

If you can afford a car, you can afford to pay your share of road building. The rest of the country is sick of your brattish temper tantrums and would like you to try to focus, challenging though it might be, on something that really matters.

Ever since the 2010 announcement that motorists on Gauteng’s superbly upgraded network of highways are going to have to pay for them, there has been endless whining, litigation, and threats. To the bemusement of the rest of us, the anti-toll brigade seems to think that we should share their pain and anger, on the grounds that this is a matter of great principle, no as it seems, locals manoeuvring for selfish advantage.

Sure, there are principles at stake. At least two. It’s just that they are not the ones that anti-toll lobby thinks.

The first is economic. That wherever possible, “user pays” is the most efficient method to allot the costs arising from the provision of road transport infrastructure.

The second, far more important, is political. That in a democracy one has the right to challenge in court what one believes to be wrong, but having exhausted all legal options, one lives with the ruling.

There are exceptions, as when an authoritarian government turns the justice system into just another tool to achieve its partisan goals. We lived under such a government for 46 years and the remedy to that perversion was a morally justifiable public defiance of the law.

Indeed, one should support a right to civil disobedience for the same reason that one should support the right of ordinary citizens to bear arms. It benefits democracy for a government to always be a little wary of those on whose behalf it purports to act.

But a citizenry has the right to civil disobedience only when fundamental rights are flouted; not merely because it doesn’t fancy paying a legally levied charge for a service delivered to specifications. The remedy for the latter is to vote the offending administration out of office, an option that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a member of the governing alliance, is clearly not keen to pursue.

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance – with its unfortunate acronym Outa, a derogatory old-regime Afrikaans word for an old black man – argues that “every citizen has the right to resist the enforcement of unlawful action by government … in this regard, the courts have not finally ruled on whether e-tolling is lawful or unlawful.”

That’s dishonest nonsense. Until the courts rule against e-tolls or the facilitating legislation, they are by definition legal.

So if we are to defy the law and man the barricades, let it be over real threats to our constitutional rights, like government secrecy and attempts to neutralise the Public Protector. In the meanwhile, you want to fight e-tolls, vote for parties that oppose them.

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