JOHANNESBURG — The sleek, white structures began sprouting up over highways here about three years ago, leaving people to wonder what they were.
A place for billboards, perhaps? Decorative pieces to spruce up the region? Or maybe they were docks to mount security cameras. Word soon trickled out through social media and other outlets that these towering metal structures, which would look at home on a space station, were tollgates. They would be used to charge the roughly one million motorists who travel the freeways of Gauteng Province every day, requiring drivers to pay for routine trips to places like work or the supermarket.
Fierce outrage ensued.
A diverse coalition — including the country’s chief opposition party, union bosses allied with the governing party, the main Afrikaner party and church leaders — railed against the proposed program, calling it unfair and inefficient. The protests and legal challenges got the government to delay the start of the tolls for years. But the system, called E-tolls, finally went live on Dec. 3, and the passionate battle of words is growing louder.
Both sides are likening their positions to this nation’s long, bitter struggle for equality, accusing one another of fraud and claiming to be on the side of the ordinary citizen. Tolls, it turns out, are a very touchy subject.
“It becomes almost like an economic apartheid,” said Wayne Duvenage, the chairman of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, explaining that low-income South Africans would not be able to afford to use the highways. “It becomes roads for the rich only.”
Opponents of the tolls are encouraging motorists to adopt anti-apartheid struggle tactics of civil disobedience, urging them to refuse to pay their toll bills.
But the government is firing back, also comparing its cause to the struggle to create an equal society. Vusi Mona, a spokesman for the government road agency, called the detractors elitists who wanted to pass the buck for highway improvements onto other South Africans. He said the opposition’s primary argument — that the Gauteng highway upgrades should be paid for by increasing the national fuel tax — would shift the bill for nearly 125 miles of improvements here in one of the country’s most affluent provinces onto people in poor regions.
“Will that be fair?” Mr. Mona asked. “We come from a culture of equity, redress and fairness. From an equity point of view, it just would not make sense.”
South Africans are used to paying tolls for long drives across provinces and the country, but what seems to irk drivers about this new system is that they now must pay to drive on roads that they need to use daily. Just a few weeks into the start of the tolls, drivers said that many of the surface roads were more clogged than before, with fellow motorists taking back routes to avoid the highways.
For many residents of Johannesburg, where unemployment is 30 percent and hundreds of thousands of people live in poverty, with ramshackle homes and no electricity, the tolls are more than a matter of principle. Some are also concerned that commodity prices could rise as companies pass on to consumers the increased cost of transportation.
“Why do they call it a freeway, and all of a sudden I have to pay for it?” asked Maggie Du Plooy, who owns a flower shop in a shopping complex in a Johannesburg suburb.
The controversy is shaping up to serve as fodder in next year’s national elections. A billboard right in front of one of the tolling gantries reads, “A vote for the D.A. is a vote against E-tolls,” referring to the chief opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
Opponents painted the tolling system as an expensive project that the government, led by the African National Congress, pushed through with little public input, adding it to the list of complaints against a party already plagued by scandal and corruption.
“It’s just a scheme to take money,” Tshireletso Ledimo, 22, who works in a telecommunications store, said of the tolls. “The government is just gangsters in nice suits.”
Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or Cosatu, which is part of the governing alliance with the A.N.C., has found the tolls puzzling. The toll infrastructure accounted for about $200 million of the nearly $2 billion spent on highway improvements in Gauteng, and critics note that it will cost at least $125 million to administer each year, raising doubts about how much money the system will ultimately provide.
Cosatu will, nonetheless, support the A.N.C. in next year’s election, Mr. Dakile said, even as it continues pushing for the abolition of the tolls.
More than 40 tollgates dot the Gauteng highways, and each charges drivers a different amount, from 40 cents to $7 for cars, depending on the distance traveled.
Under the system, drivers may purchase electronic tags for their cars that automatically charge accounts they have set up, much like the electronic passes used on American highways. If a car does not have one, the plate is noted and a bill will be sent to the registered owner. Unpaid tolls can result in criminal prosecution.
Opponents have told people not to purchase electronic tags, and some have even advised ignoring the bills they receive, hoping this will clog up the courts, create an administrative nightmare in collecting unpaid tolls and prevent the toll authority from making enough money to keep the system running.
Mr. Mona said people were ignoring those overtures, as more than 920,000 electronic tags had been bought. Mr. Duvenage’s opposition group did its own informal survey and said it believed that the road agency’s figures were inflated.
Lerato Plessie said she got a tag out of necessity. As an account manager for a telecommunications company, Ms. Plessie, 32, said she could not avoid the highways when she drove to see clients. The drive from her home to her office takes about 15 minutes on the highway, but about 45 minutes through back roads. Within two days of the start of tolls, the $5 she had on her account was depleted, she said.
“I’m really not impressed at all,” Ms. Plessie said.
Tumi Manjingolo, a 31-year-old administrator, said she was in favor of the tolls. “The roads are better,” she said. “The highway is much more free-flowing.”
Within two weeks of the start of the tolling, Jacques Coetzer had racked up nearly $40 in tolls. So Mr. Coetzer, a 29-year-old accountant, went to an E-toll service center to pay his debt and purchase a tag. But by the time he left, he said, “This is the worst experience ever.”
The attendants, who were behind a thick glass window, told him they could not accept his credit card because their machine was down, he said. So he went to a bank, and by the time he returned with cash, the amount he owed had increased because of interest that accrued on his late fees during that short time, he said. When Mr. Coetzer gave attendants cash to add to his account, they put $50 on it instead of $45 as he had asked, and could not refund him the difference, he said.
“To be very honest,” he said, “I don’t think I’m going to pay E-tolls ever again.”
58 780 000 (mid 2019 estimate)
4.6% y/y in February 2020 (CPI) & +4.5 y/y in February 2020 (PPI)
-1.4% q/q (4th quarter of 2019)
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