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Despite the recent Supreme Court of Appeal victory for government over its plans to introduce e-tolls, the matter seems likely to go before the Constitutional Court. If this fails, mass civil disobedience will sink this ship, writes Ciaran Ryan 

Spare a thought for Nazir Alli, CEO of SA National Roads Agency, whose job it is to sell the South African public on the wondrous benefits of e-tolls.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) this week just tossed out the case launched by Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) challenging the legality of the tolls, but Alli’s problems are just beginning. The Freedom Front has indicated it will challenge the SCA decision in the Constitutional Court, and OUTA will decide next week what action it plans to take.

At the very least, mass civil disobedience seems certain. OUTA says it may choose to defend any motorist who is charged for non-payment of the tolls. If SANRAL loses just one case, it is game over for e-tolls.

Not in 20 years has the South African government faced such committed opposition to a policy plan. The ANC voted in lockstep – and in complete disregard for the near universal opposition to this blighted plan – when it recently hammered through Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Bill, paving the for e-tolling. A few days later, OUTA lost its case to have e-tolling declared unlawful in the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Not a great week for the people of South Africa.

Still, there was Nazir Alli claiming the opposition to e-tolling is exaggerated, and that the SCA concurred with SANRAL’s claim that it had acted within the law.

Consider the following: in October 2007, barely a year after the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) was conceived, SANRAL took out expensive advertisements in national newspapers inviting comment from the public, as it is required to do by law. It got a total of 28 responses. SANRAL could then claim that it had adequately canvassed comment from the public and so fulfilled its legal obligations in this regard. This in a country of more than 50 million people is somehow deemed by SANRAL to be adequate public consultation.

With that box now ticked, by 2010 it had moved on to the implementation phase, erecting 45 e-toll gantries across Gauteng, all in preparation for the April 2011 launch. Opposition to e-tolls was by now in full cry, led by OUTA, but supported by opposition parties, Cosatu, the ANC Youth League, business and civic organisations. The April 2011 launch date came and went. In fact, five launch dates have since come and gone. Now government is promising to launch before Christmas this year and as of this week, the freeway tariffs have started appearing on billboards across Gauteng.

In June of this year, the Presidential Commission for the Review of State-Owned Entities recommended that “funding for social infrastructure, including roads, should rely less on the user pays mechanism (ie. e-tolls) and more on taxation.”

In other words, the government’s plans to proceed with e-tolls contradicts its own policies.

As OUTA has pointed out, had government slapped a 9 cents a litre surcharge onto the fuel levy in 2006 when GFIP was first floated, this – together with the R5,7 billion allocated by Treasury to the project in 2012 – would have covered the entire R17,1 billion cost of the freeway upgrades, and there would be no collection costs.

OUTA further points out that roughly 30% of the e-tolling maintenance and operational costs will go to collection. Specifically, the European group Kapsch (what a great name) that owns the majority interest in the e-toll company, has said it will earn R670 million a year from the project.

The basis of OUTA’s case is as follows:

  • that SANRAL had clearly failed to conduct a meaningful public participation process before it decided to declare Gauteng’s freeways toll roads. The three million or so members of Gauteng’s road using public were not properly informed of SANRAL’s plans nor given the opportunity to participate in the decision at all, as is required by the SANRAL Act;
  • the Minister of Transport failed to properly consider the exorbitant costs of e-tolling that would be borne by the public when approving SANRAL’s plans to declare Gauteng’s freeways toll roads. The very person who had to safe-guard the public from an overly expensive scheme did not properly consider the expense of the collection process;
  • the enforcement of e-tolling would be practically impossible because of the sheer numbers of users of the GFIP. Gauteng’s courts and law enforcement system would be unable to deal with thousands of expected defaulters per month.
  • that the levying and collection of e-toll is a scheme that had not been introduced according to the law, and would violate the constitutional right of road users not to be arbitrarily deprived of property.
  • Last year OUTA launched a case in the North Gauteng High Court, which astonishingly decided that  the public consultation conducted by SANRAL prior to 2008 had been adequate. The Court failed to deliberate on the alleged unlawfulness of e-tolling. The matter was then taken on appeal.

“Astoundingly, the SCA in its judgment responded by refusing to consider and decide on the unlawfulness of e-tolling,” said OUTA in a statement issued today.  “Instead, the SCA decided the appeal largely on the technical basis that there has been too long a delay in challenging e-tolling. The property challenge was also dealt with on the basis that it was defeated by delay. In short, the SCA has said it is too late, and has closed its eyes to the fact that e-tolling may be unlawful.”

The government and SANRAL have interpreted the SCA judgment as affirmation that SANRAL’s public consultation was adequate. OUTA says the judgment makes no such claim. Road users still have no clarity on the lawfulness of e-tolling. Therefore, “it remains open to any citizen to lawfully decide not to pay e-tolls and defend his/her prosecution for failure to pay e-tolls on the basis that the toll declarations and the approval by the Minister of Transport of e-tolling was unlawful,” says OUTA.

“This we must stress, is a very positive implication of the SCA judgment for the rights of individuals.”

Perhaps the main argument against e-tolling is that it will bankrupt itself due to the administration costs of chasing up tens of thousands of unpaid bills each month. On this basis alone, it seems doomed.

OUTA has a couple of avenues open to it. It could take the matter to the Constitutional Court, but is seriously short of funds. Or it could defend a motorist charged for non-payment of e-tolls, or encourage a campaign of civil disobedience.

Either way, the e-toll saga is far from over.

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