Civil disobedience in (rather slow) motion
Word went out on Facebook, “Be at the Crusader’s Clubhouse on Saturday, January 25, at 07:30” and they came… KIM KEMP joined in too.
Reminiscent of a crusade of old, in the early sunlight they came in tens, scores, hundreds and, finally, in their thousands; streaming into the grounds on motorbikes and in cars, South African flags waving in the wind, while the day promised to heat up – on every level. Every conceivable sector of society was represented; from little greying women and svelte young things, to rotund executives and burly bikers – all there to fight a common enemy: e-tolls.
The ingenuity of signage on the cars ranged from “Shoe-shine” messages in white, emblazoned along the length of vehicles, to carefully crafted expletives stuck over windscreens, all but obscuring the view from within. A variety of hand-written posters were also proudly held high. On sale were a multitude of stickers urging buyers to not support e-tolls and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) sold their own “Proudly e-toll free” variety to help fill their (litigation?) coffers.
To sustain the masses, cooked breakfasts (comprising bacon and eggs) were on offer, as was coffee and tea, but no alcohol. Well, so they said. Have you ever tried to prise a beer from the hand of a determined biker? Hmm, I thought not …
A huge rig arrived and, amidst cheers and much arm waving, was manoeuvred into place alongside the road. As the side of the behemoth slid open, a stage, complete with a public address system, was revealed and within minutes rock music boomed into the air, giving the already vibrant setting a rock concert atmosphere.
Apparently the event was the brainchild of two bikers who got “gatvol” of e-tolls and so Bikers Against Tolls (BAT) was born, soon to be joined by Cars Against Tolls (CAT).
I managed to grab a minute with the one of the organisers, Shaun Phister, who informed me that this was indeed the sixth protest event, but the first after going “live” on Facebook. When quizzed as to what he intended the outcome to be, he explained: “This started as a bikers protest. Two heads are better than one, so when fellow biker, James Sleigh and I were sitting chatting about how insane the e-toll system is, we decided to do something about it. These nationwide protests, (all happening on the same day in Cape Town, Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth), are the result.”
Phister continued: “The general public’s ire about the system mainly rests on the fact that no new roads were built; old ones were simply widened, by one lane, with little to no positive impact on traffic flow.” He asked: “Why could these costs not have been added to the fuel levy and spread and shared among the entire population, given that Gauteng is the powerhouse of the country, and then we wouldn’t have felt it so badly?”
What the protest entailed was a “go slow” on the highway, along a pre-determined route, basically blocking traffic flow for about two-and-a-half hours, although emergency lanes were not affected. Interestingly, the protests had the full support the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) that assisted with traffic flow to the highway, and monitored on- and off-ramps throughout the route.
The first ride took place in March last year, supported by 3 500 bikers. Today, with a membership base of 22 000 bikers and 30 000 motorists nationwide, support is growing, evidenced by the online traffic through the Facebook page and 5 000 attendees for the Joburg event alone.
He added, “What makes it worse is that 80 percent of the money raised goes offshore to KaptchTrafficCom, with not enough of the proceeds available to upkeep and maintain our roads, coupled with the debacle that the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) calls a billing system.”
Everyone I chatted to had a similar gripe. For example, Eugene, aka “Echo Bravo” said: “I have been paying fuel levies for 50 years and what do I have to show for it? The state of the roads is shocking, you just have to drive on the N12 East to see what I mean; it’s like driving on corrugated iron! To add insult to injury, all they (Sanral) did was temporarily mend existing roads. I personally think that this (protest) is going to sink Scamral!”
Maggie and Penny, were adamant that they were not going to get “tagged’. As reps, both travel the highways and byways through the Gauteng area, visiting clients. “This not only impacts on my household budget (if she was tagged that is …), but the principal of the system is wrong. It’s failed in four countries already, so why are we even doing it?” Maggie asked and with a mischievous chuckle said, “We should inundate the Sanral Call Centre with queries, just to bog them down with admin!” With that she posed for a photo with what can only be described as an “orthinological” symbol. It seems there are a number of “bird” enthusiasts in the anti-e-toll fraternity.
With the lyrics of We gotta get out of this place thundering over the loudspeakers, I made my way over to one of the policemen standing at a long row of neatly parked JMPD vehicles and bikes. I asked: “Isn’t this a waste of manpower and taxpayers money minding a group of non-violent protestors? I mean, you could be writing out tickets, chasing baddies and basically doing something that the taxpayers would be happy to pay for?”
He answered, rather formally, “As SAPS, we are obligated, according to the Gathering Act, to ensure that people who are protesting, and the public in general, are kept safe and that the event is conducted in a peaceful manner.” That was fair enough, I thought, but having viewed a number of “peace officers” lounging in groups in their cars, seeking shelter form the now 35°C heat, I wondered at the efficacy of their implementation.
Nevertheless, I ambled over to one of the marshals, Kate, who believes that events like this “make our presence felt,” adding, “If a lil’ ole’ lady like me can do it, why can’t the youngsters stand together and show their support; after all, it’s a system that they will be inheriting if nothing is done about it?”
Watching a man fixing a sticker to his car, I questioned if he was “newly converted” to be countered by a vehement response to the contrary: “No way, I have always been anti e-tolls! As an IT engineer I travel extensively from site to site servicing clients. This entire system was forced on us without any form of consultation. It could easily have been included in the fuel levy. Their billing process is also a complete shambles,” he stressed and as an aside added, “I hope Sanral crumbles under this type of protest.”
A group of four; Diaan, Stuart, Madeline and Chantal were vociferous in their contempt for Sanral, accusing them of being bullies, “Enforcing the system on the public regardless of opinion,” said one, while another added, “Where is the transparency? Where is the money going?” When one of them added that if there had been consultation they “wouldn’t have minded paying for the e-tolls” they were hurriedly “shooshed!” with nervous reference by their friends to “being lynched if you are overheard!”
There were numerous examples of inaccurate billing, with one woman showing me a sheaf of bills for passing under a single gantry, while another received a R400 bill during December, when he wasn’t even in Gauteng. Yet another received bills totalling R11 000 in one month by travelling from Northcliff to Centurion for work.
Amid cheering, a braai was brought into the centre of the crowd and suddenly hundreds of e-toll bills were magically manifested from under leather jerkins, out of handbags and other places of concealment. With a roar from the crowd, Phister set them alight and, while a cloud of smoke rose into the air, flashes popped as multitudes of cellphones and cameras recorded the event and even SABC got in on the act.
When Wayne Duvenhage from Outa addressed the crowd, the change in energy was tangible and took on the air of a political rally. Each sentence he spoke was met with a roar of appreciation as he rationalised and explained Outa’s stance on e-tolls. It occurred to me that the e-toll saga has become the channel of release for a country reeling and staggering under an assault of corruption, cronyism and graft. By protesting, we all feel that someone somewhere will hear us.
To the road
When the word was given to start the protest, the bikers roared as a phalanx onto the highway. Impatiently waiting a full ten minutes for the last of them to file past, the eager motorists hooted support as the stream finally ended and we were allowed to join the cavalcade.
At each traffic light or intersection, the cacophony of blaring hooters was deafening and it didn’t subside throughout the two-hour drive. With flashing hazard lights we swarmed across the highway, blocking traffic as best we could. However, the column was more like an elastic band than a solid mass, stretching and thinning and then compressing, as it made its way along the route.
The momentum was weakened by having to obey traffic lights getting onto the highway. This possibly is where the JMPD could have expedited the process better, allowing for larger chunks of the procession through to catch up with the section that went before?
Under each gantry flocks of “birds” filled the air and I giggled when, as the drive progressed, even gantries on the opposite side of the highway were subjected to the same vehement signing, with arms suddenly appearing out of car windows like a well-choreographed ballet. Eventually anything that looked as though it belonged, or could belong, to Sanral was assailed by the same defiant gestures – even the e-toll buildings along the route. Motorists who were not part of the protest soon learned to either relax or join us or, less frequently, tried to pass on the right. Funnily enough, a few of the latter learned the orthinological sign pretty quickly and exchanged it with us as they flew past in irritation.
The atmosphere during the drive was positively celebratory, with the endless hooting sometimes taking on a mass symphony as tunes were tried out on various systems and then discarded, while other motorists simply held the horn down on an almost permanent basis. I was singularly impressed by an elderly woman who drove with her one arm resting rakishly in her open window, while her other hand held the hooter down as she steered the car with her knees!
On the last leg, almost reluctantly, we peeled off on our various off-ramps, waving farewell to our fellow protestors with a final toot of the horn. I arrived home, firm in my belief that if we are united, we are unstoppable. We must simply find that commonality of purpose that will galvanise us into taking action. Maybe the e-toll system is it?