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Collapse of e-tolls is a victory for people’s power

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Picture: Paballo Thekiso/African News Agency (ANA) Archives – A worker holds a banner during a protest march against e-tolls in the Joburg CBD. The e-tolling system that was imposed on Gauteng motorists was an attempt to extend the rule of profit and the influence of the market over our road infrastructure, says the writer.

By Trevor Ngwane

A smattering of applause greeted Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana’s announcement that sounded the death knell of the Gauteng open road electronic tolling system made during his medium-term budget speech last week. This was the only time anyone bothered to clap hands during his arguably lacklustre delivery.

His performance brought to mind an old song by Queen called ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ in the album ‘The Game’. After a decade of threatening thunder and brimstone to Gauteng drivers who boycotted paying the e-tolls and demonising organisations such as the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) and Cosatu for their opposition, the ANC government unceremoniously chucked the policy into the dustbin of history without a whimper. Indeed, the new Gauteng premier, Lesufi Panyaza, expressed jubilation and claimed victory at the termination of the unpopular e-tolls in his province.

One begins to wonder what is the name of the game? Where exactly is the ANC taking the country? Lesufi’s opportunism is understandable given the looming electoral defeats facing his province in the 2024 national elections. In 2009, the ANC in Gauteng won 64 percent of the vote, in 2014 it dropped to 54 percent, and in 2019 it was down to 53 percent. Catastrophically, in the 2021 local elections it lost all three metros, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, to DA-led coalition governments.

The current turmoil involving council chamber coup d’états in the metros spearheaded by the ANC is a clear indication that this political party finds it very hard to survive sitting in opposition benches. In other words, expediency rather than principle is arguably the main driver of ANC policy, hence Godongwana’s willingness to flush e-tolls down the toilet.

In 2013, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) blatantly imposed the e-tolling system against the will of the people. From that day, this agency and the ANC government repeatedly advocated the user-pay principle as the cornerstone of transport policy and economic development. The ANC government appeared totally certain and unshakeable in its defence of this principle, going to the highest court of the land, changing laws in Parliament, victimising individual motorists, repackaging the policy including lowering tariffs and offering discounts, to ensure its successful implementation.

The will of the people did not matter. Public participation exercises were shabbily manipulated and trampled upon. Expert opinion that suggested that perhaps e-tolling was not the best funding model for paying for Gauteng’s highways which had been built in time for the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup was ignored, and Sanral and the ANC steamed on ahead with the policy. Nothing could stop a government in power.

The demise of e-tolling is a victory of people’s power. Led by Outa, and supported by Cosatu and other organisations, the Gauteng drivers stood firm in their resolve not to pay the e-tolls. Their boycott was a reminder of the struggle of the Lamontville community in Durban during apartheid days, led by Msizi Dube, later assassinated, and immortalised by Mbongeni Ngema in his play ‘Asinamali!’ (we don’t have the money to pay).

The difference today is that new class alliances were being formed, many of them cutting across the divides of the past: black and white motorists united in the struggle against a neo-liberal policy. Less than 20 percent of drivers paid for e-tolls, ultimately the downfall of the policy.

Beneath the stubbornness of the ANC and Sanral was the capitalist policy of putting profit before the needs of the people, of using the public sector as a channel to siphon public money into private pockets. In this game, the will of the people does not count, countries do not have economic sovereignty, the voice of the credit agencies such as Moody’s, acting on behalf of the markets, are the ones that determine national economic policy.

In 2012, when a South African court interdicted the implementation of e-tolling partly because of the principle “nothing about us without us”, and that there had been no transparency in the discussion and adoption of the funding model, as per constitutional requirements, Moody’s cut Sanral’s credit rating to BAA2 with a negative outlook, clearly a punitive action.

Sanral was established in April 1998 as an independent statutory company with the mandate to improve, manage, maintain and finance our national roads using two primary sources of income, namely, allocations from the National Treasury and revenue from tolled roads, which are funded from money and capital markets.

Thus, 87 percent of roads are funded through an annual grant from the national fiscus while 7 percent are funded by toll levies and borrowing on commercial markets and 6 percent are private company concession-holders who raise their own capital. But like in the health-care funding situation, the commercially (private) funded roads enjoy almost the same amount of resources as the public funded, thus expenditure on maintenance is R2.2bn for the private and R3.3bn for the public roads.

The e-tolling system that was being imposed on Gauteng motorists was an attempt to extend the rule of profit and the influence of the market over our road infrastructure. A road is a public good. The privatisation of roads through tolling ultimately has the outcome that some capitalist must make money when we drive on that road. This is at the heart of the Gauteng drivers’ struggle against e-tolling. It is what American political economist David Harvey called “accumulation by dispossession” whereby a capitalist system caught in a profitability crisis tries to make money through incursions into the public sphere – water, energy, housing, education, health care and roads.

The private sector has a role to play in our economy. However, South Africa is a developmental state that is tasked primarily with rolling back the injustices of the past in its quest to create a better life for all.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Godongwana and other senior government leaders should not allow their entanglement in capitalist business deals to cloud their vision in this regard and make them forget the mandate they derived from the victory of the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. Their economic policy must be informed and guided by a vision of attaining socio-economic justice. The victory against e-tolls in Gauteng is part of the struggle of keeping this vision real and alive.

* Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.