JOHANNESBURG, South Africa- Signed by President Jacob Zuma and ratified by the South African Supreme Court, the new e-toll legislation has been called an insult to South Africans for its circumvention of the judicial process. The toll, which will operate in the province of Gauteng, which surrounds Johannesburg, Pretoria, and their suburbs, will require citizens to register for e-tags to allow for automatic, electronic tolling on major roads, and enable criminal prosecution against any who won’t – or can’t – pay the fee. Warns Neil Roets, CEO of debt counseling firm Debt Rescue, “[the]burden of e-tolls is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
For a country which has seen rising poverty rates – in spite of UN and local efforts to meet Millennium Development Goals targeting poverty reduction – the bill may indeed fulfill Roets’s bleak prophecy. Gauteng already provides more tax revenue than any other South African province, due to its immense population, and receives only one-fourth of the R400 billion it generates.
Coming from a province with a 27% unemployment rate and rampant poverty in the peripheral regions, the burden is already great. By adding on the additional weight of the e-toll, many may be discouraged from long commutes, and those figures could rise even higher.
Moreover, the operation of the e-toll has been outsourced to Austria-based Kapsch TrafficCom for a cost of R1.7 billion annually over the first five years. This continues a debilitating trend of African money trickling into Europe and North America through privatization. Much of the revenue generated by the toll will not even have the opportunity to be used for transportation infrastructure in other parts of the country – which was part of the initial justification.
This obvious flaw has led many to predict that the e-toll will collapse under mass rejection by the public. Sanral (the agency behind the bill) has publicly admitted that if enough people refuse to register for e-tags – and risk the legal ramifications of that choice – the system will be forced to collapse. A projected 85-95% compliance rate is necessary for sustainable implementation, a figure which no one expects will be met.
Lying at a deeper, more fundamental level, is the disregard for the citizenry and the judicial process exhibited by the Zuma administration. Zuma signed the bill before the Supreme Court finished debating its legality, prompting a surge of demonstrations against the bill, and more subtly, the administration behind it.
Whether or not the e-toll succeeds, the South African government has made a strong statement about its detachment from reality and incompetence. Worse, if the government decides to prosecute thousands of citizens to the full extent of the law allowed by the e-toll bill’s harsh language, local courts would become quickly inundated and cease to function reliably, risking a state of legal gridlock in which actions have few consequences.
As a weathervane for the South African political and social environment, the e-toll legislation issue has only dour indications. If Zuma and the South African government do not learn from this – one contentious topic among many – they may see their country sink deeper into the instability that is endemic to Africa, and lose their ability to aim to be a regional power with the influence to attract investment.
– Alex Pusateri
Sources: Business Tech, The Africa Report, Business Tech: E Toll Bill Signing, FOURTH SOURCE, NDA
Photo: Mother Jones