E-tolling failed before it was turned on

About a year ago, on 19 November 2013, Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters announced that the e-tolls ‘on-again-off-again’ confusion would finally be over and the scheme would eventually be launched on 3 December 2013. It was the day that marked the beginning of the end of a fiasco which should never have happened in the first place.

Following Outa’s successful interdict of the scheme’s launch on 30 April 2012, the protracted legal battle to halt the launch of e-tolling was set aside on a technicality of administration law in September 2013. The Supreme Court could not condone the lateness of the application, and as much as we wanted to have our arguments on the unlawfulness of the e-toll scheme heard, the SCA could not allow it.

Essentially, these arguments were set aside for the day a motoring citizen would be summonsed by the prosecuting authorities to explain their non-payment of e-toll bills.

The Outa committee met shortly after the SCA decision to decide its future. Do we pack up and go home, or do we play a new role within the space of civil action? Our decision to continue the fight was based on the overwhelming evidence and research gathered since 2010 on the Gauteng e-toll scheme and others schemes around the world.

We had enough information and insight to argue not only the unlawfulness of the Gauteng e-toll scheme, but also the extent of its irrationality and gross inefficiency which would make it virtually unworkable. These factors would ensure its ultimate demise – we had no option but to stay on course.

We also knew that in the absence of civil society’s ability to keep Sanral honest, it might just manage to hoodwink, coerce, intimidate, and threaten enough people to participate in the scheme. This, in turn, might have lead to e-tag compliance levels high enough to satisfy the authorities with some degree of success.

Our research showed e-tag compliance below 85% was not sustainable over time. We also knew that Sanral would have deemed a compliance level of 70% as being a great success.

As it turned out, society’s courage to defy the unjust system resulted in a peak compliance rate around the 40% mark, some seven months after it was launched. Outa believes that much of its work to counter Sanral’s multi-million rand e-toll marketing and propaganda campaign played a role in empowering society with the knowledge to remain defiant at such a high level.

At first, shortly after the scheme was turned on, Outa received many messages of condolences for our failed attempt to halt the scheme. People seriously thought the fight was over, purely because the e-toll system was now switched on. We knew we had our work cut out for us to convince the public that just because the purple lights were burning, it didn’t necessarily mean that the users were paying.

Our tactics exposed Sanral’s misinformation on the e-tag sales. We counted e-tags on windscreens at freeway off-ramps and in parking lots and extrapolated our findings to denounce Sanral’s grossly inflated numbers.

We asked politicians to seek clarity with regards to these numbers from the Minister of Transport in parliament, and our research was vindicated as being accurate to within 1%, despite Sanral’s attempts to play down our findings.

Together with Cosatu, the faith-based organisations, and other civil action entities, our messages of civil courage began to sink in. We attended every media inquiry and provided input which saw the Advertising Standards Authority rule against Sanral’s misleading advertisements in mid 2014.

Our viral messages and video clips, along with a concerted social media drive, gained traction and the e-toll scheme remained one wherein more users refused to pay than those who did.

By mid-winter Sanral’s final card to prosecute motorists for non-payment was about to be played. Outa’s committee met its legal advisors and agreed on a plan to support and fight the prosecution process, if indeed it ever came to be.

Following the Gauteng ANC’s decline at the May elections and Premier Makhura’s recent announcement of an e-toll advisory panel, Minister Peters wisely decided to halt Sanral’s plans of e-toll prosecution at the end of June 2014. A crisis of legitimacy for the e-toll policy was now a reality.

Today, the ANC in Gauteng has denounced the scheme, as has the ANCYL, SALGA. and virtually every business and civil society organisation which made presentations to the Gauteng e-Toll Advisory Panel. It appears that 11 months after the scheme was given the green light, it is now collapsing at a rapid rate – with the e-tag compliance rate declining toward the 30% level and close on two billion rands worth of e-toll bills outstanding.

Thanks to the foolish e-toll decision and Sanral’s blinded arrogance, society is now wiser to the extent of its power. It is just a matter of time before the decision to turn off the e-toll farce, one that ought never to have happened in the first place, is taken.

More on e-tolls

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E-toll prosecutions smoke and mirrors: JPSA

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E-tolling failed before it was turned on