Too little, too late

I am somewhat bemused at the outcry over the implementation of the toll fees in Gauteng. Do they amount to daylight robbery? Of course, yes. But, come on everyone! We have known about them for absolutely ages … why didn’t we act earlier?

What is it with us? When I say “us”, I mean “us South Africans”. When it comes to fighting for our rights, we’re utterly abysmal – and the toll fees are a case in point.

We have known about them for a long, long time. We all muttered about them. But, to be perfectly frank, did we unite as a nation or as an industry to fight their implementation? Of course not. We waited until they were about to be introduced – and then we started throwing our toys out of the cot (or maybe that should be truck).

As much as I completely abhor the violence that was associated with the drivers’ strike recently, I must commend them for actually taking a stand. It was nothing short of a complete disgrace that they resorted to burning trucks and intimidating fellow drivers; that’s barbaric and unnecessary behaviour. But at least they took action against a situation that they believed to be unacceptable.

Did we do the same when the toll fees were first mooted? Of course not. Sure, we mumbled and muttered about them (and, to be fair, we didn’t know the extent of the extortion that we were facing; the tariffs are even more horrendous than we expected). But some sort of tangible, in-your-face protest action? I didn’t see anything like that.

Be this as it may, we are now all weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth, especially since we have learnt the exact details. And the Minister of Transport (very commendably, I may add) has suspended their implementation. But let’s not crack the champagne just yet. As the Road Freight Association (RFA) points out, the South African National Roads Agency Limited’s (SANRAL’s) R20 billion debt still needs to be paid. “So this may just be a short reprieve for road users,” an RFA spokesman warns.

The RFA has long supported toll roads – the logic being that this seems to be the only way that the revenue that has been collected is dedicated to building new roads and road maintenance. Does this mean that the association also supports the Gauteng tolls? No way. “The e-tolling tariffs are excessive and irresponsible given their potential knock-on effect. While we don’t expect to have good roads for free, we feel that a realistic fee of 12c/km would have been more acceptable. These exorbitant tolls are another way to tax the already heavily taxed trucker,” the association proclaims.

In fact, the RFA has sounded a warning that, if implemented, the tolls will have “a catastrophic effect on the economy and the man in the street”.

SANRAL would disagree – the organisation claims to have done a study which found that the impact would be minimal. But the RFA has disputed these findings. “We fail to see how any economic study could possibly indicate a minimal effect as a number of economists have repeatedly warned against the negative impact on consumer pricing and inflation,” contends the spokesman.

According to the RFA, the implications on truck operators and the public at large are dire. It claims that operating costs will increase by between 23 and 30%, depending on the frequency of trips, times travelled and routes taken. This will clearly impact on the prices of consumer goods (and, according to the RFA, over 80% of freight is moved by road).

The RFA believes that truckers are a soft target, and are getting a raw deal. “Freight operators are not being offered frequent user discounts and the off-peak discounts can be seen as a deliberate attempt to remove trucks from the roads during peak periods. In addition, trucks are being charged seven times the fee of smaller vehicles,” the spokesman points out.

According to the RFA, the cost of building a new six-lane freeway has been estimated at R80 million per kilometre. “Yet we are being charged R140 million for two lanes and long-overdue resurfacing. SANRAL has been allowed to use its monopolistic status to impose these extortive costs on the road user without proper consultation, adequate disclosure and with little thought to the man in the street, who will have to find other ways to make his rand stretch even further,” its spokesman notes.

We wholeheartedly agree with the RFA, and the many other organisations that are now up in arms. But, quite honestly, we should all have been a lot more vociferous in our protests ages ago. I really do hope that the e-tolls (as they currently stand) are not implemented; the impact will be horrific. But I fear that our protests now may be a case of “too little, too late”…

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