Disobedience, civil or otherwise, may win the day in e-tolls battle

THE resistance to electronic tolling on Gauteng freeways has been hailed as the largest civil disobedience campaign in the history of SA’s democracy, but not everyone agrees that motorists’ widespread refusal to pay e-tolls qualifies as civil disobedience.

Despite a decrease in tariffs, South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) roadblocks at highway offramps and threats of criminal prosecution, thousands of Gauteng motorists have not registered for e-tags and thousands more have no intention of paying to use the roads. Sanral is facing R2bn in unpaid bills.

The campaign has been led, in part, by African National Congress (ANC) ally the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and their protests have included burning e-tags and demands for payment outside Sanral’s offices.

Civil disobedience as a form of nonviolent protest has been employed before in SA. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga believes the rejection of tolling qualifies as such a campaign. “As much as there is not a perfect textbook example of such a campaign, in this instance people are rejecting a law and a policy,” he says.

“There are other such campaigns, such as organisations in townships, which protest (against) electricity and rates charges. This is just the first time that the middle class has rejected an issue that required them to resist a law collectively.”

However, Centre for the Study of Democracy director Steven Friedman says the rejection of e-tolls cannot be seen as a civil disobedience campaign, as such protests are driven by moral issues and require participants to deliberately surrender themselves to arrest, as with the ANC’s 1952 defiance campaign.

“Civil disobedience is not just a refusal to pay a toll. It is a specific political tactic where you disobey what you consider to be an unjust law and surrender yourself to arrest…. Evading the law is not the same thing as civil disobedience,” he says.

Mr Friedman says it is possible for a civil disobedience campaign to flourish in a constitutional democracy such as SA, but all participants would have to be in agreement on the immorality of the law being opposed, solidarity and nonviolence as a tactic.

While the jury is out on how successful these protest tactics will be in eradicating the system, it is clear that many, if not all groups opposing e-tolls believe that the only way to end Gauteng freeway tolling is simply to refuse to pay.

Sanral spokesman Vusi Mona says while the agency does not have the power to prosecute people for noncompliance, it is urging Gauteng motorists who use the freeways to register on the system.

“The law rules in the country as things stand. Therefore we encourage people to abide by the law and pay their tolls,” he says.

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven says civil disobedience proved an effective tool in fighting repressive laws during apartheid regime, but he does not believe the refusal to pay e-tolls is such a campaign.

“The burning of tags is not civil disobedience at all. We believe that refusing to pay the tolls — which we believe is entirely justified — certainly is effective. We believe that sooner or later it will lead to the system’s collapse,” Mr Craven says.

Cosatu does not support civil disobedience as a policy but believes it is justifiable when a law is not in the interests of South Africans, Mr Craven says. “We, together with other organisations, will do everything possible to assist those victimised for their legitimate refusal to pay. And given that we are talking about thousands and thousands of people, we doubt (Sanral) will go ahead with prosecutions.”

Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance chairman Wayne Duvenage says the organisation does not specifically advocate civil disobedience but supports Gauteng motorists who believe such a campaign would lead to the system’s undoing.

He believes that the rejection of e-tolls has been the biggest civil disobedience campaign since the dawn of democracy.

“This is a tax revolt, which we have not seen before. The government must be wondering what to do next,” he says.

“People are fed up with taxes. They will not pay to travel on the roads daily to get to work, earn a salary and pay a tax for other services which they don’t get.”

The Department of Transport last year indicated people who did not pay the tolls would be prosecuted but Transport Minister Dipuo Peters has since put the brakes on bringing boycotters to court. Mr Duvenage says this indicates the government is experiencing difficulty with enforcing the user-pays law on Gauteng’s freeways.

ANC Gauteng head of communications Nkenke Kekana says the party made a submission to Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s advisory panel on e-tolls and was awaiting the release of the report. The party rejected e-tolling “in its current form” at its provincial conference last year.