E-tolling: the last straw

It’s not often so many South Africans agree on anything. Unity: it’s one thing the issue of e-tolling has done for us. We should be grateful. But it’s still not worth paying for.

In a News24 poll in which 21 573 people took part, 81% of the respondents said that they are going to defy e-tolls. I don’t claim the poll is representative, but it’s not often that so many people are in agreement on something. Especially in SA. Especially on News24 polls.

The argument about e-tolling has been raging for what feels like eternity. I am not going to go into the well-worn arguments for and against (A quick summary – For: the roads were expensive to build, they benefit everyone, but now they need to earn their keep. Against: why should poor overtaxed motorists/commuters carry this burden as well? Were they ever consulted, etc).

The very active, but unfortunately –named OUTA – is putting up a big fight on behalf of consumers.

What does fascinate me is what is it about this particular issue that has made South Africans have a collective over-my-dead-body reaction? I mean it’s not as if South Africans are strangers to controversies – both economic and political. We are generally a compliant bunch. We grumble, we moan, we bitch on Twitter, we whinge on Facebook and comment boxes, and then when it comes to the crunch, we bow down and we pay.

But this time it might just be different. Because thousands of people are threatening not to pay. What apparently happens then is your car is photographed as you pass under the gantry and you are sent a bill, a summons and so forth. But how can this be enforced if there are hundreds of thousands of people who have not paid? The court system is already clogged. The government is threatening to make those who refuse to buy an e-tag pay double. But how?

It would have been different if we had to confront a toll-booth attendant one-by-one, but there’s something anonymous about being photographed in our thousands.

If there’s one thing governments, kings and emperors have become very good at, it is extortion in the name of taxes. The question has always been, “How else can we milk the bastards?” And over the centuries there have been the most amazing schemes to wheedle money out of the population. Salt taxes, window taxes, taxes on beards. In modern times we call this GST. Then there are estate taxes, taxes on pensions, PAYE, fuel levies, property taxes – the list is neverending. It would shock you to sit down and work out how many cents in every rand you end up spending on taxes.

So what do I propose? Some Utopian society in which there’s enough money to go around for everyone and government funds fall from heaven? That would be nice, but it’s just not ever going to happen. Unless oil starts bubbling up by the barrelful somewhere in the Northern Cape.

But this is just the thing: people don’t want to pay for e-tolls on top of everything else. They feel they have already paid. And they have. What of course doesn’t endear the average taxpayer to this new proposed scheme is that not a day goes by without there being some news report on yet another government or municipal official caught with his hand in the kitty. Billions go missing this way. Much, much more than the roads ever cost to build, I am sure.

In essence, what the SA taxpayer is saying with this concerted anti-e-toll campaign is that they are tired of pouring their hard-earned cash into a pocket with several Nkandla-sized holes in it. Initially the e-tags don’t sound that expensive, but it is the thin edge of the wedge. Look what happened to electricity prices. Once they’ve got you, there’s no knowing where it will end.

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