William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

E-tolls: An ANC act of rare political courage

There is a slowly dawning realisation on the part of the African National Congress government that South Africa is staring down the fiscal abyss. The situation is dire.

There are at least four public agencies — electricity supplier Eskom, SA National Roads Agency (Sanral), South African Airways (SAA), and the SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) — that are haemorrhaging money at a potentially terminal rate. They have received substantial revenue transfusions and more are urgently needed but the bank is running low.

An inefficient, often corrupt but still burgeoning bureaucracy is devouring increasing resources while delivering decreasing outcomes. The overburdened taxpayer camel is wobbling at the knees. The international rating agencies have marked down SA’s bonds to just above junk status.

It is the problems of the first two agencies that are potentially the most damaging to the ANC in the coming local government elections. After all, there are sufficient electronic media alternatives for the public to be able to avoid the garbage emanating from the SABC and there are airlines other than SAA to fly on.

However, Eskom load shedding is not only an expensive and niggling inconvenience but also a galling daily reminder of SA’s rapid infrastructural decline. And the overwrought reaction of Gautengers to e-tolls is similarly a reminder that the proverbial last straw is, in isolation, always apparently inconsequential and harmless.

That an administration infamous for its inertia — under a president infamous for his reluctance to offend any ANC constituency — has last stirred itself to do some of what needs to be done, signals how bad the situation is. However, it is also an act of considerable political courage that has been a long time coming and should be encouraged, not scoffed at, for failing this happening both Eskom and Sanral will eventually collapse.

Eskom now has governmental nudge-and-a-wink approval to crack down on illegal connections, non-paying consumers and defaulting municipalities, as well as to implement the first load shedding of large black areas like Soweto, which alone owes the utility R4 billion. Then came this week’s insistence on the part of government that while charges will be slashed, Gauteng e-tolls will not be scrapped. They will, in fact, be aggressively enforced with motorists unable to renew annual vehicle licences until e-toll debt is settled.

Both moves have caused outrage. There was a protest march against Eskom (an ANC-run entity), which was bizarrely instigated and led by ANC politicians.

In response to the Sanral crackdown, social media was a-flutter with angry denunciations of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the unfortunate bearer of the bad news. Some in the non-payment lobby upped the bravado a notch, threatening to stop paying licences or to procure counterfeit discs and number plates.

There is an irony here that is lost upon the apoplectic middle-class boycotters. They rage at the non-payment culture among the poor that endangers electricity supplies, but when it benefits their own somewhat deeper pockets, they react in a way that reflects the very same, developmentally ruinous, entitlement mindset that they claim to despise.

One should be clear. There is no moral high ground to an e-toll boycott, despite the best efforts of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) to claim that this is a principled fight against an unjust, arbitrary action.

The first recourse against a government act believed to be unfair is to challenge its legality in the courts. Since the courts have already ruled e-tolls are legal, the next step is a campaign of public pressure, which may succeed or else will eventually be tested at the polls.

No matter how gatvol one is, a civil disobedience campaign, which is essentially what Outa is promoting, has no place in a democracy. Even more outrageous is when a political leader, like the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema, talks about torching e-toll gantries.

Nor does the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, come out of this well. The DA is always quick to call out the underprivileged on their anti-democratic actions. That it does not speak out unambiguously against similar behaviour on the part of the relatively privileged is a disgrace.

The reason for the fudge is the fact that the DA is likely to benefit electorally, especially in Gauteng, from government’s unpopular enforcement of these particular laws. But that DA populism is subtler than that of the crassly threatening EFF makes it no less despicable.

The DA knows that the greatest danger to our democracy is the toleration of lawlessness. The worst offender has been President Jacob Zuma’s administration. If opposition parties now start playing this same game when it suits them, the country is doomed.

Pay for your power. And your e-tolls.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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