2014 – the year of sanity on e-tolls?

One month after the big e-toll ‘switch on’ and society has witnessed a broad based people defiance campaign that many did not envisage possible.

30/12/2013 11:06:43

2014 – the year of sanity on e-tolls?

The extent of the rejection of e-tolls by Gauteng road users is not only in the 80 to 85% of freeway users refusing to purchase e-tags, but also in the clear signs of an estimated 1,5 million road users that will probably not pay their e-toll bills. “The situation unfolding, has all the signs of a very successful civil action - defiance campaign, the largest in our new democracy” says Wayne Duvenage, the chairperson of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA). “It is a campaign driven by the denouncement of e-tolling from all sectors of society, Labour (COSATU), the Churches (SACC), Business (SACCI, JCCI, BUSA, BMF) and civil society at large.”

To date, far too much has gone wrong with the entire matter for it to succeed. Tolling is one of those processes that requires almost everyone to pay, as you simply can’t have a situation where some people are paying whilst hundreds of thousands aren’t.

The authorities display of intimidation and threats of criminal prosecution exudes a belief that the middle-class motorist will eventually succumb and fall into line. This ‘big stick’ approach is a gamble which appears to be back-firing and giving rise to a heightened rebellious chorus of resistance. Without the majority of the public on board, there is not much more SANRAL can do about it, other than continue with a warped belief that threats to criminalize over one million people, plus their spending of millions of taxpayer’s rands on a highly unsuccessful media campaign will make it work.

Harassment of motorists.

Throughout December, OUTA has received numerous messages from motorists, alarmed by calls from the e-toll Violations Processing Centre (VPC) demanding payment for e-tolls. Mobile phone numbers obtained through other databases are being used to contact motorists who have opted not to get e-tags or contract with the Electronic Tolling Company (ETC). These motorists are being ‘coerced’ and intimidated to immediately pay outstanding e-toll fees or be handed over for debt collection.

“This behavior confirms the dismal number of e-tag sales and that ETC are desperately trying to meet their contractual obligations to SANRAL with measures aimed at herding in those motorists and companies who have not been tagged,” says Duvenage. “We are advising motorists not to allow the anxiety within ETC to be projected onto them, to stand their ground and insist that SANRAL sticks to its original commitment to the public to handle non-registered e-toll road users by means of normal business practice. This means the issuance of a tax-invoices and the necessary detail of evidence of the correct vehicle passing under the various gantries.”  Duvenage added that “hundreds of people who make contact with OUTA through the social media platforms have vowed in principle not to pay any e-toll fees, as they are sincerely disgusted with the entire debacle, the high costs, the lack of transparency and the irrationality of the system.”

In addition OUTA has received numerous messages from business operators with vehicle fleets who have opted not to contract with ETC via the e-tag facility. Many of these businesses are smaller to medium in size and are communicating collectively through local business associations, forming agreement pacts amongst themselves to defy the system. Clear in their expression is the “irrationality and unnecessary costs and onerous conditions placed on them, whilst there is too much waste and squandering of our taxes in other areas throughout the country,” as one business owner put it.

Examples of the frustrations people have recently experienced are:

  • Unsolicited advertising - through text messages calling for registration for e-tags via SMS to phones, using other organisations databases. One citizen  asserted this as unsolicited advertising and believes this behavior by ETC to be in violation of the recently enacted Protection of Private Information Act (POPI).

  • Extreme inconvenience for e-toll payment by non-registered users - The online facility for non-registered users which initially allowed motorists to check their e-toll liability, and pay online or with a credit card, has been abruptly stopped. Motorists who call in to the call centre are now being told that they will have to travel to an e-toll customer centre to find out what they owe and pay the outstanding amount. One OUTA supporter who happens to be overseas for a month at present and who drove under the gantries on his way to OR Tambo airport asks “how are we supposed to pay if they make it impossible to do so?”

  • Targeting of Fleet operators - A number of business people have reported extremely prejudicial treatment for not contracting to fit e-tags.  As business operators compliance with VAT regulations necessitates the issue of tax invoices for VAT computations.  But the ETC’s Violations Processing Centre (VPC) are not obliging and insist that fleet operators can only obtain such documentation if they contract to buy e-tags, which is regarded as a flawed process and gross violation of their rights.

  • Outdated Data - Several individuals are reporting that the ETC has incorrect information on their database and their staff say they cannot update it “because it was provided by eNatis”. One motorist was informed of an exorbitant e-toll bill that seems to have been run up by someone else driving on his (cloned) vehicle license number, as his freeway use was minimalistic. He said he “couldn’t be bothered by the entire fiasco”.

The growing list of incidents are collectively painting a picture of a system that seriously lacks the required professional response handling capability and one which appears to be a state of crisis. “At this early stage, the system is creaking under the weight of a costly, cumbersome and unworkable administrative process,” says Duvenage, who goes on to explain that  “E-tolling is successful in environments where high levels of trust between the public and the authorities exist (generated by transparency and excellent public engagement programs). They also work when there are low costs of administration (below 10%) and extremely high levels of public acceptance and compliance (over 90%).  Virtually none of these factors exist within the Gauteng e-toll project and no matter what the outcome of theforthcoming elections or the verbal intimation from the authorities, as long at the current vast majority of road users boycott the e-toll system, it will fail and have to be funded by the fiscus.

The only question is whether the intransigence of SANRAL and Government will see beyond their blind e-toll obsession and their ears will open to hear of other options which the people have voiced a willingness to accept. OUTA sincerely hopes that sanity will prevail in 2014, to overcome this most unfortunate debacle, which is currently doing more damage than good for our country.

OUTA is a proudly South African civil action organisation, that is purely crowd funded. Our work is supported by ordinary citizens who are passionate about holding government accountable and ensuring our taxes are used to the benefit of all South Africans.