Rebellion may send e-tolls to the scrap heap of apartheid laws – Business Day, 1 June 2015

FEW things in the year ahead will be more fascinating than how e-tolling plays out.

FEW things in the year ahead will be more fascinating than how e-tolling plays out. In accordance with the inept manner in which it has handled the revolt against e-tolling, the government has played into the rebels’ hands with contradictory advertisements on the revised charges announced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

On one hand, they say "government has heard you". On the other, they threaten a new sanction: "All e-toll fees will need to be settled before a new licence disc is issued."

The response to this by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) was suitably chirpy: "There are fun and games ahead. Round one went to the people and round two will go to the people."

In one sense — though not the scale of penalties — the threat to withhold licence discs is reminiscent of how the National Party (NP) government attempted to break the campaign of defiance against unjust laws in the 1950s.

If you infringed even a municipal by-law in the course of protesting against another law, you would be committing an offence.

Ramaphosa, reportedly acting under a Cabinet decision, is now attempting to concoct a scary new offence of driving without a licence disc even though the motorist has paid for it. Arguments about the legality of withholding licences will keep us all entertained in the run-up to next year’s municipal elections.

Plenty of entrepreneurs have no doubt already seen the opportunity to sell forged discs for less than the cost of the unobtainable real ones.

Popular defiance is the name of the game, and there are many lessons from our history about attempts to enforce laws with so little popular legitimacy.

That the African National Congress (ANC) is emulating the NP in this regard is one of the more delicious ironies of our politics.

The fascinating question is whether e-tolling will go the way of the Group Areas Act and the pass laws, which were in the end destroyed by nonviolent defiance by ordinary people.

The NP tried everything it could to enforce the pass laws, including arresting millions of people.

When Africans in search of jobs travelled to towns illegally anyway, the NP hit on the bright idea of punishing not only them but also any employers who gave them jobs.

That also failed and, in 1986, then state president PW Botha announced that the pass laws would be repealed because they had become unworkable.

The Group Areas Act met a similar fate after more and more blacks started moving into supposedly white suburbs in spite of it. The mayor of Johannesburg said there wasn’t a single "white" suburb in the city without illegal black residents.

In 1987, the attorney-general of the Witwatersrand gave instructions for all of them to be prosecuted. Two years later, he said this was impossible because there weren’t enough policemen to investigate all the violations. When the Conservative Party threatened to take a Johannesburg estate agent to court for selling a house in a white area to Indians, he retorted that the party would have to hire Ellis Park stadium for all the prosecutions that would be necessary.

It was not long before the Group Areas Act went the same way as the pass laws.

If Ramaphosa were to have a quiet word with his erstwhile fishing partner, Roelf Meyer, he might learn how difficult it is to enforce laws so widely rejected as illegitimate.

Either that, or he should make a booking at Ellis Park.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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