Eliseev: E-toll sabotage a sign of deep discontent
Barely a month after e-tolling officially began operating in Gauteng the first act of 'sabotage' against roads agency Sanral has taken place. On Tuesday an anthrax scare led to a mass evacuation of an operations centre and forced those purple eyes over the highways to momentarily blink. If Sanral had any doubt that it's losing the battle for the hearts and minds of motorists, it should agonise no more.
Let's begin with the facts surrounding the 'anthrax scare': A "suspicious envelope containing a white substance" was discovered at Sanral's Central Operations Centre in Midrand on Tuesday. Staff was evacuated briskly and police were summoned along with the guys in those hazmat suits. Later it was reported that thirty-seven people had been "decontaminated and hospitalised as a precautionary measure".
According to Sanral, the electricity supply to the building had to be cut and the scare caused a "disruption" to e-tolling, for which an apology was issued (if there has ever been a time when an apology wasn't needed, this was surely it).
The roads agency 'seriously condemned' the incident and said it 'borders on a very serious crime', while e-tolling critics took the opportunity to remind everyone just how much they hate e-tolls.
The police began their investigation, which may well conclude that the substance is nothing more than baking powder or the ash-like remains of Bafana Bafana's confidence.
Regardless of what the lab coats find the substance to be, the 'suspicious envelope' should serve as a wake-up call to Sanral of just how much trouble it's in. If it were, say, a large cruise ship, the envelope would be the tiny tip of an iceberg that lurks beneath. And the reason Sanral finds itself on this collision course is because of its own arrogance.
Hold that thought for a moment. While this anthrax drama was unfolding, a small media briefing was underway in Richmond, not far from downtown Johannesburg. It was organised by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and was a presentation of a report into how the media had covered Nkandla. The study had been done by the Media Policy and Democracy Project and its findings were presented by respected Rhodes professor Jeanne Prinsloo.
In essence, the study found that reporters who investigated the Nkandla story did so ethically and responsibly. Journalists were not hostile to the ANC and the leaders it has placed in government, did not attack the dignity of those leaders and were driven by overwhelming public interest.
The ANC, on the other hand, was found to have acted in a hostile manner and against public interest. Its tone, the study found, was 'reluctant, impatient and arrogant'. Prinsloo also concluded that Jacob Zuma threw up a smokescreen around the allegations and had continuously deflected them.
Now take those findings and apply them to Sanral.
Right from the start, Sanral seemed to have taken a position of looking down at its critics, hiring top lawyers to fight off court challenges and bulldozing ahead with its plans. Its stance was that everything was done by the book and if you - yes you, Mr Motorist - wanted to raise any objections, you should have done so years ago. (That technical argument, by the way, strangled the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance's court challenge at the Supreme Court of Appeal last year).
At first, Sanral made it immensely difficult for anyone to get any information about the consortiums that were profiting from the multi-billion rand project. Documents were reluctantly handed over to opposition parties and trade unions, but had chunks of information blacked out. Later, the documents became part of a court battle and Sanral claimed it had uploaded them onto its website. This area remains murky at best.
With little understanding of who was benefiting from what, and suspicion that most of the cash was flowing abroad, the focus shifted to the logistics of the system. Again, there was a mammoth amount of confusion about everything from whether one could get a criminal record by not paying e-tolling fees (which Sanral threatened at some point) to how the invoicing works. There were a few public consultation sessions, but these lacked credibility and were held far too late. There were also special political sessions, which did little to break the deadlocks. E-tolling was a vehicle that couldn't be stopped and motorists had to settle for a cut in the tariffs, which was probably always on the cards and were strategically timed, like those "this onion dicer could cost you…" infomercials.
There was a superficial debate about funding models, but again no alternative was ever really considered. It all felt like it was just a matter of going through the motions.
Scandal after scandal followed, and more and more contempt was shovelled by Sanral onto its most vocal critics. The spats over how much Sanral spent on advertising and the number of e-tags sold spring to mind, for example. Somewhere along the line, Sanral boss Nazir Alli resigned, then un-resigned.
Once the system was eventually switched on in early December the billing bungles began. Sanral described these as 'teething glitches'. Everyone else called them screw-ups. Ten-year-olds receiving bills, SMSs harassing people who don't even own cars, that sort of thing.
The more journalists or talk show hosts asked for clarity, the more confusing it all became. Sanral turned up the heat, boasting about the number of motorists who have registered and reminding people that not paying will land them in court. But the public had genuine concerns about the system, the payment options, number plate cloning and why two senior managers (the CEO and the COO of Electronic Toll Collection) in Sanral's stable had resigned?
Sanral produced newspaper supplements, loaded up information on its website and had its spokesman Vusi Mona spend an impressive amount of time on air fielding these questions. But the message battled to break through and no real compassion for motorists, who are buckling under the weight of another tax, was shown.
And then came the 'raise your IQ' gaffe from Mona. It may have been a mistake under pressure, and there's no need to dwell on it, but it is a metaphor for the attitude Sanral has displayed towards its clients from the word go.
Nobody is arguing that e-tolling is an easy sell. It's a grudge payment. Another nasty tax. But compliance - motorists paying their dues - is the key if the system is to work. And bashing people over the heads, while threatening and insulting them, is not the way to achieve it.
Like Nkandla, this is an issue of huge public interest and journalists have a right to ask questions and demand transparency on behalf of the public.
The biggest PR battle lies ahead: the moment Sanral has to prosecute the first batch of motorists for not coughing up. Never mind that the first court case could open the whole can up again (with a challenge on whether the system is constitutional and lawful) but can you imagine some pensioner, or a family man battling to make ends meet, being hauled off to the dock?
It has reached the point where Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is being asked to intervene and moderate a discussion between Sanral and the public.
Following the anthrax scare, the question is: will Sanral reassess its strategy or push ahead against the wave of public opinion?
Professor Prinsloo accused Jacob Zuma of using ignorance as a primary defence in the Nkandla scandal. That option is not available to Sanral. It has some tough decisions to make.
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him on Twitter: _ @alexeliseev_
This column appeared in _ Daily Maverick._