OPINION: E-tolls - a 5-year debacle without purpose

Could it be that recent hints from ETC of some sort of amnesty or reprieve to those with massive e-toll bills might have something to do with another desperate attempt to breathe life into the defunct scheme? asks Wayne Duvenage.

Five years ago, on December 3, 2013, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) took a gamble and proceeded to launch its controversial e-toll scheme, despite three prior years of public outrage, highway blockades and launch delays since the public became aware of the scheme in 2010.

The issue is probably the single most reported on matter, certainly by the Gauteng media, than any other since democracy.

Despite Sanral's own advisors warning of the serious consequences and risks pertaining to possible civil defiance which might raise the costs of collection to unaffordable levels, they were prepared to slog it out. Sanral believed that a multi-million-rand marketing campaign that included coercive messages of criminal charges and threats of denied licence renewals for those who had ideas of not paying, would ultimately scare the motoring public into obeying the law.

Backfire it did and horribly so. By mid-2014, six months after the scheme's multiple-delayed launch, compliance peaked at a mere 40% and contrary to Sanral's misleading claims the Gauteng motoring public were not rushing off in droves to get tagged. From there on, once the public became aware of their strength on this issue, compliance levels began to decline. Not even a 60% discount with six months to settle outstanding debt in 2015 could entice those with mounting bills to come on board.

Defiance continued and eventually stabilised at around 25% to 27%, mainly due to businesses who did not want to go against the government grain, thereby keeping the scheme on life support.

Today one has to ask what compels Sanral (or government) to keep the scheme in place? After all, the five-year tender contract period to manage the collection services with the Electronic Tolling Company (ETC) has now expired, removing the contractual obligation excuse espoused in the past.

As for the bonds that need to be paid, government can very easily negotiate a new arrangement with the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) bond holders. It's not as if the PIC is going to pull the plug on their own masters. Besides, government funds 86% of Sanral's freeways though existing Treasury grant mechanisms, supported by the fuel levy. All they need to do is apply this same process to an extra 1% of Sanral's freeways and the PIC bonds issue will be addressed.

Could it be that recent hints from ETC of some sort of amnesty or reprieve to those with massive e-toll bills might have something to do with another desperate attempt to breathe life into the defunct scheme? Could this explain why Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande did an about turn on his original announcement that spoke of putting an end to the scheme shortly after his appointment in March? Or is the plan to limp on closer to the elections for a political announcement to pull the plug on e-tolls?

Termination of e-tolls for political point-scoring would go down as an unconvincing farce. Additionally, any plans of an amnesty would be very short-lived and go down as a "different deal – same e-toll debacle".

An amnesty carrot may entice some to join up, but still the majority will not pay and any attempt to enforce by withholding vehicle licence renewals through an amendment to the AARTO regulations, will be challenged both constitutionally and with more public defiance. Dragging the e-toll civil disobedience campaign into the vehicle licencing space will be a disaster too big for both national and local government to comprehend.

What makes December 3, 2018 an interesting date, is that Sanral has not reissued the tenders for the next five-year e-toll collections period. Nor has it explained how or if it managed to allow the period of operation services to be extended beyond that which is reflected in the ETC contract. For all intents and purpose, e-toll collections are now being operated illegally.

One would expect a learning government to engage with civil society to find a solution to the e-toll debacle, especially when the leading civil society organisation that has led the fight against the scheme has displayed a constructive approach with Parliament and other institutions of government to challenge maladministration and corruption within the state. The mind boggles to think that the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) has yet to be approached by senior government officials on what their approach would be to resolve the e-toll debacle.

Every day the e-toll scheme limps on is another day of mounting debt and another day lost to introducing an alternative solution, which in this case does exist. It just needs to be decided on and implemented. As they say in the classics, it's never too late to undo a bad decision.

- Wayne Duvenage is CEO of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa).

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