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Gauteng's e-tolling volcano

Opinion,Alex Eliseev
Alex Eliseev
Opinion

Alex Eliseev peers down the crater of this week's e-tolls public hearings to understand what happened.

Before we begin, let’s clarify that these public hearing were supposed to be about the tariffs and exemptions, not about the merits of e-tolling or whether it should be implemented at all. That will be decided through a high court battle, due to begin in a few days’ time. These hearings were a chance for people to dance with the devil that lurks in the detail, and to better understand how much they will have to cough up.

Having said that, the meetings were also the first real opportunity regular South Africans have had to stand up, grab a microphone and do battle with roads agency Sanral and the Transport Department. It was a chance for them to speak their minds, to ask questions or maybe just throw a shoe at Nazir Ali. (We are in no way encouraging you to throw shoes at anyone. Save your money. You’ll need it.)

The first session was held at a swanky hotel in Kempton Park. There was tea and coffee, little square sandwiches and less than a hundred people. It was a disappointing turnout considering e-tolling was supposed to be the “start of a new consciousness” in South Africa.

The second meeting was held the following night in Pretoria, with somewhere between 200 and 300 people showing up and Cosatu threatening a protest. The third and final hearing was on Thursday night in Sunninghill and turned out to be the most tense and emotional one. More than 300 people packed into a conference hall, private security was brought in and people warned that “gantries will burn and roads will be blocked with rocks”.

During all three sessions, there was a fair amount of drama, with angry people storming off or shouting at the facilitators. There were anxious moments when those in charge threatened to shut down the meeting unless people showed more respect. There was a man in shorts and slops who yelled across the room as Sanral threatened to call security. And the plumber who said he would have to retrench three workers to pay the tolls.

There were many stories – told with raw, painful honesty – of financial hardships, of people who could simply not afford to pay the toll fees. The overwhelming message was that an elastic band can only stretch so far before snapping. Some fumed at all the money government wastes. Others raged at having to pay for President Jacob Zuma’s wives. In Sunninghill, it took less than five minutes for Nkandla to be mentioned and mocked.

The volume seems to have instantly been turned up a notch.

“What we are saying here is that you are screwing us, and you’re raping us and rape is illegal and this is wrong, what you’re doing is wrong,” a young man shouted. “And we say no! No to Nkandla. No to e-tolls. No! No!”

A 24-year-old business owner asked how he was supposed to create jobs when his bank account kept getting cleaned out.

People called e-tolling an evil system or a money-making scheme. They asked who was getting hand-outs? They shouted “Bullshit!” or “Open your eyes,” as officials tried to answer their questions. It wasn’t pretty and it was disruptive, but that’s what people felt.

Many of those who came to the sessions had excellent questions locked and loaded. They accused Sanral of using the decreases in the tariffs (since 2011) to sweeten the ugly-tasting pill being forced down their throats. The accusation here was that the tariffs are being lowered because a few extra years have been slapped onto the period during which the capital cost of around R20-billion will have to be repaid. (With interest over around 20 years the figure spikes to well over R30-billion). The argument was that we’re not paying less; we’re just paying it back over a longer period of time.

People questioned how the current model of user-pay was arrived at; how Sanral plans to deal with a possible rise in cloned number plates; how double charges will be avoided; what is the state of alternative routes and public transport? There was great discussion about how much money will be used to collect fees versus how much will go to maintaining roads.

There was meaningful debate around these and other issues, but no sign of any converts. If government had set out on an evangelical mission to claim souls, it’s safe to say they left through a crowd of complete non-believers.

So what was the point of all this? Why embark on a thirty day public consultation process which appears to have achieved nothing and, if you ask the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa), came years too late. Cosatu called it a farce. The AA slammed it as a “PR disaster”.

Let’s explore why an angry volcano coughed up a few fireballs but, for the most part, failed to erupt.

Despite the government’s promises to launch a widespread advertising campaign, news of these meetings appears to have gone largely unnoticed. Once reports from the first session went on air, into newspapers and onto websites, the numbers began to swell.

Another problem was that the hearings were held in only three locations, making it difficult for those living in townships (Soweto) or far flung areas (Vereeniging) to attend. Government argues you can’t be everywhere and that no matter how many venues they secured, someone would have complained. Then they went and cancelled plans to hold as many as five similar meetings in Gauteng’s neighbouring provinces.

There is no doubt that people were also less interested in talking about the details and more interested in discussing how they can stop the entire project. It was the cart being placed before the horse, if you like. With 20-something objections back when this all started and around 3,000 written submissions received during this round of consultation and well over 500 people attending the three sessions, it’s clear that people have not yet been given ample opportunity to voice their opposition.

Far too many people see e-tolling as a fait accompli and with that fatalism comes submission and disinterest. Remember, a Constitutional Court has already given Sanral the right to start tolling the roads. On the flip side, others may have felt that talking now is pointless when a high court is yet to rule on whether e-tolling is viable and whether it will be allowed to roll out permanently. While that chapter begins at the South Gauteng High Court on November 26, the appeals are likely to take ages.

Most importantly, meaningful debate can only happen if both sides are armed with information. If you need an example of what happens when one side refuses to show its cards, just look at Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. Engineers have been forced to study photographs in newspapers to ascertain whether the R250-million (or thereabout) paid is justified or exorbitant.

Similarly, the R20-billion which was spent on the roads upgrades is yet to be properly explained. We're not suggesting that everyone will want to engage with these spread sheets and figures, but those who do should have the opportunity to do so, and then to throw their analysis into the public arena.

Sanral has repeatedly come under fire for being secretive and for muddying the pond of taxpayer’s money used to build the new infrastructure. Census 2011 shows that millions of South Africans are streaming into Gauteng, making the roads more congested than ever. But if we, the public, are allowed to study Sanral’s spread sheets, we may (hypothetically speaking) come to the conclusion that they should have spent R10-billion on roads and the other half on developing public transport. We may feel that too much was spent on what we got. Who knows, but we should have that information at our fingertips.

We must also be given a complete breakdown of the contractors used and their subcontractors, not to mention how much of the profit is to leak through the country’s borders and into the coffers of foreign companies.

Government has made promises to make some or all of this information available and claims it’s freely available. People at the meetings argued that’s a lie.

What we should have had in the build-up to this public consultation is a dedicated website (and booklets) with all of this information translated into easy-to-use info-graphics. If you need a lesson on how to do this, just look at what some of the major global newspapers (New York Times, The Guardian, etc) did with the recent US elections. Even a Russian living on the southern tip of Africa could understand how swing states and electoral college votes work in America. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to make the most excruciatingly complex data understandable.

The same goes for alternative routes and public transport. Why not go beyond merely saying that they exist, and show us where and what they are. What is the state of alternative roads? What does this all mean for someone traveling from Lenasia to Johannesburg or from Pretoria to the airport?

The point we're making is that if government wanted to convince us that these hearings are not a sham, it should have made it possible for people to be better informed.

The PowerPoint presentations given at the hearings are simply not enough. I’m talking about information that matters: How was R20-billion of our money spent, who benefited, how was the current payment model decided on; what are the alternative routes; what public transport is available; how will fees be collected; how will offenders be prosecuted; is the collection model economically viable; what will the annual increases look like; is the system ready to go; what will happen if the project is cancelled; etc.

The bottom line is this: Sanral cannot simply say: “Trust us”.

Guess what? We don’t.

What we really need is to be told how our money is being spent and then decide whether to support or oppose e-tolling.

Until that happens, this volcano will continue to simmer. And who knows, maybe one of these days it will erupt.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.

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