The road to nowhere: The collapse of e-tolls in SA

Charné Mostert says scheme's failure emphasises state authority is not absolute

It is true: value does not lie not in discarding the old for the new, but in revitalising existing systems. One thing the ANC government has become good at is sweeping dysfunctional systems under the rug and then offering a new centrepiece – like a polished coffee table with beautiful red roses on it – to divert attention from the underlying problems. Innovation should serve to enhance, and not replace, the foundation that we have built despite new technological horizons. Moreover, introducing new replacement systems as an approach to averting problems does not give the government a pass on the mistakes that it has made in previous years.

Panyaza Lesufi, the Premier of Gauteng, left Gauteng motorists hot under the collar when he announced on 14 February this year the rollout of new number plates for all Gauteng vehicle owners. It appears like another costly endeavour, at the taxpayer’s expense, that will inevitably fail to achieve what it claims to achieve.

A couple of days after the new number plates were announced, people bore witness to the end of the dire e-toll system in Gauteng. The system was first introduced in December 2013. It was implemented as an electronic toll collection (ETC) process so that motorists would not have to stop at toll gates, while the ETC process would automatically collect toll money. The public did not welcome the system and ultimately resulted in a culture of noncompliance. The South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) and the government together announced that e-tolls have been on a road to nowhere and will be abolished after 11 years of operation. ANC officials celebrated the end of e-tolls like it was New Year’s Eve. They watched the countdown nearing midnight on 11 April and erupted in cheers as the clock struck midnight.

Where one journey comes to an end, another begins.

Amid the celebratory atmosphere of the e-toll announcement conference, the ANC wasted no time in revealing another significant update: the introduction of new driver’s license cards to commence in April. Picture the scene: as the chapter on e-tolls closes, symbolising a system defeated by noncompliance, attention swiftly shifts to a striking hardwood coffee table. Gleaming under the conference lights, the table proudly displays government-issued number plates, impeccably polished. As if to further captivate the audience, vibrant red roses adorn the table, accompanied by the unveiling of the new driver’s license cards. Could this spectacle be sufficient to appease the public and divert attention away from the staggering billions that were squandered on the failed e-toll system? Perhaps not.

The principal source of criticism was the perception of injustice and cost on regular individuals, who were already dealing with financial hardship. The e-toll system demonstrated a fundamental gap between governance and the governed. While officials emphasised its benefits, the public regarded it as just another example of elite decision-making that is disconnected from the reality of daily living.

What accelerated the downfall of the e-toll system was an unwavering attitude of public noncompliance. In a surprising show of unity, vehicle owners across Gauteng simply refused to register their vehicles or pay their e-toll accounts, thereby making the system insignificant. This broad resistance was more than simply an act of civil disobedience; it demonstrated the potential of collective action against unjustifiable, unfair policies.

Furthermore, the downfall of the e-toll system demonstrates the necessity of community action in bringing about meaningful change. The system was dissolved not by top-down directives or political manipulation, but through the united efforts of regular people who refused to give in to unfair demands. This is a striking reminder that genuine democracy is alive at grass-roots level, where underrepresented voices find resonance.

Civil society organisations played a fundamental role in rallying the public against e-tolls. Civil rights organisations such as AfriForum had been fighting against the e-toll system since it was first introduced. From the outset, AfriForum participated in the public consultation process on e-tolls, describing it as an ill-conceived project. The abolishing of e-tolls serves as sweet vindication of the critical voices from years ago.

As South Africa moves forward, the e-toll road to nowhere serves as a stern message to those in authority. It emphasises that authority is not absolute and that there is consequences for rejecting the will of the people. The downfall of e-tolls demonstrates the continuing power of public noncompliance in changing policy outcomes.

Nevertheless, while we anticipate the release of new number plates and driver’s license cards – embodied by the stunning vision of red flowers standing high on a polished coffee table – we must be mindful of the carpet on which this diversion rests. If the public remains omitted from any new system’s legislative process, it risks ending up like e-tolls: a road going nowhere, paved with the consequences of a detached government that sweeps broken systems under expensive carpets.

Charné Mostert is a campaigns officer at AfriForum. She holds an honours degree in international politics (cum laude) from the University of South Africa. Charné generally publishes on X (previously Twitter), LinkedIn and TikTok.