A toll too great?

2013-12-02 10:00

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It’s time we sought common ground in the standoff around the gantries, writes Brian Currin

The minister of transport announced last week that the controversial e-toll system on Gauteng’s freeways will start on Tuesday.

Yet just days ago, that very same minister had to admit that more than two thirds of e-tags?remained unsold. In the present climate, can the e-toll system really be made viable? The nature of resistance shows that in the court of public opinion, legal rights are relative, but moral rights are imperative.

The ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal last month appeared to sweep away all legal opposition to the scheme. Yet, opposition – formal and informal – is mounting.

The DA, and FF+ have launched further court challenges, and lawyers are lining up to defend the first transgressors free of charge. Like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, this topic just won’t stay down.

Positions are also becoming more extreme – just witness the post on one social media site likening those opposing e-tolls to those who resisted the Nazis.

Whatever your view, it’s clear a large segment of our population feels very strongly about e-tolls.

But why is this subject so emotive? This is a question of how to go about financing much-needed infrastructure – surely it’s not a topic to make your blood boil.

So why is opposition hardening, despite formal vindication of the project?

The answer to both questions lies deep within us, and has nothing to do with the socioeconomic arguments that have been raised however appealing or meritorious those might be.

This is not about the detail, it’s all about the principle. We are not concerned about infrastructure financing, we are disturbed by the perceived behaviour of officialdom.

The perceptions that have united opposition – and they resonate throughout service?delivery protests as well – are that our opinions do not matter to those in power; that government officials are incompetent, corrupt and inflexible; that decisions are not taken in the public interest; and that since we are denied a forum for dialogue, and thus to make our opinions known, we must take matters into our own hands.

These perceptions, however accurate, are so powerful as to “justify” virtually any response. Outrage and indignation pervades, with total obduracy on all sides.

Positions adopted show a deepening conflict, where the aim is to deny the opposition ground rather than to consider one’s own interests.

Take each position in turn:

»?For those considering noncompliance, is it really in our own economic interest – as taxpayers – that this project should be slowly strangled, and by our own hands? Whatever righteous satisfaction one may feel, it will not last beyond the next budget day.

»?For the SA National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), its determination to force the issue is not matched by its ability to do so. September’s credit rating downgrade by Moody’s is not only a vote of no confidence, it makes the cost of its borrowing more expensive, leading to a vicious cycle of spiralling costs, which, again, is bad news for the taxpayer.

»?For the ANC, its unwavering promotion of e-tolls has opened the door to political opportunists of all hues who are lining up for a risk-free injection of political capital. Will it pay for e-tolls with the loss of Gauteng in 2014?

There is a pressing and urgent need for all sides to avoid the self-harming consequences of protracted conflict.

Is it too late for dialogue? Have we come too far down the road to contemplate a withdrawal? No, I do not believe so. In my experience, no situation is irretrievable.

In conflict, settlement is often only really possible when each party understands there can be no outright victory and that more can be gained from negotiations than from continued struggle.

Exhaustion often brings reason.

Consider the peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland, the success of our own transition from apartheid or the speed with which the US and Iran are moving towards more?productive relations. In each case, a negotiated settlement seemed beyond hope.

Such a process must necessarily involve concessions – they are part and parcel of negotiating. So there must be a major shift in mind-set. In an adversarial environment, concession implies capitulation. But in meaningful negotiation, it must stand for acknowledgement.

Government, Sanral and the disparate groupings in opposition must acknowledge that a different narrative to their own exists, and that it might have some validity.

Acknowledgement does not involve a humiliating retreat. Far from being a weakness, it offers strategic options. At present, an e-tag?has no attractions. It can be used to monitor our movements, and is merely a means of taking our hard-earned money.

The uncompromising position of Sanral and government brings to mind a large, brimming spoonful of cod-liver oil: “Take your e-tag. It will be unpleasant but life will be even worse without it.”

Acknowledgement encourages creativity. E-tolls need not necessarily be right or wrong, they could be made far more palatable if there were economic incentives to participation.

Surely commercial partnering, with a rewards type of scheme, allowing discounts at certain retailers (which could be tied to freeway hoarding advertising), would be easily possible.

What about using the technology an e-tag offers to incentivise take-up, and socially acceptable behaviour? Sanral could make average speeds between gantries available to vehicle insurance companies, incentivising good driving and lower premiums for responsible drivers. It could even price its own fares accordingly.

These are just a few options – and we can all think of more – that provide genuine options, and change the combative and coercive nature of the current debate.

This cooperative style of engagement should have occurred already. Official insistence on minimum legal consultation requirements, while strictly lawful, has helped lead to the present impasse. The consultative process in 2007 was woefully inadequate and elicited a negligible public response.

This should have rung alarm bells. The summary of public consultation by Sanral in the document to the minister of transport in January 2008 reflects none of the current objections.

Sanral was ill-informed and it is hardly surprising that it has been reacting to events ever since.

Acknowledgement of the practical (if not the legal) failings would reflect reality and go a long way to preparing the ground for cooperative rather than adversarial debate. Achieving a negotiated settlement is never easy, but it is always possible.

It requires humility and great courage. Our country is known throughout the world for the settlement of 20 years ago. Can we find those qualities to again achieve the seemingly impossible?

»?Currin is an international political mediator and the executive director of Concentric Alliance

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