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Electronic Tolls in South Africa: Economic Apartheid?

 heard a beep as I was driving the rental car south on highway R21 from Oliver Reginald Tambo International Airport — which serves the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area — to get to the East Rand Mall south of the airport just northwest of Boksburg so that I can exchange currency.

Did I pass one of those gantries which recorded a toll electronically from the transponder adhered to the inside of the windshield of the car? I had no idea — but all I knew is that I was disappointed to find during my research before my trip to South Africa that not only were many of the highways toll roads; but many of the toll roads in Gauteng province are electronic with no other option to pay.

This is a statement which was attributed to Zwelinzima Vavi — who is the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions — in his own words in this article posted back in December of 2013 at the official Internet web site of Eyewitness News in South Africa:

“I think our government has squandered another opportunity of showing itself to be a caring state by running roughshod over public resistance to e-tolls. We must resist the e-tolls with everything we’ve got. We must do it for the sake of generations after us. Don’t buy e-tags! Continue using the highways! Down with economic apartheid!”

Is economic apartheid too harsh a term to describe the current situation of electronic tolls in the Gauteng province of South Africa? Is that similar to what has become known as “Godwin’s Law” where a comparison to Hitler or Nazis is inevitable when a discussion is carried on long enough; or is that term to describe the implementation of electronic tolls in South Africa accurate?

Judge for yourself by watching this video:

An attempted explanation of what was meant by the term economic apartheid is found in the frequently asked questions section of the official Internet web site of Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance — from which the above video is provided — pertaining to the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, which is also known as GFIP:

…if you own a car but you can’t afford the e-Tolls to travel on the GFIP roads then you have no choice but to either try to use some alternative roads or public transport. Almost everyone agrees, except the Minister of Transport, that there are no real reliable, safe and efficient alternatives available to somebody in Gauteng who must commute daily between home and work. As a car owner, it simply means that if you can’t afford to pay for e-Tolls which means you are ‘poor’ (?), you must then drive along congested and damaged secondary roads while the ‘rich’ who can afford to pay e-Tolls can drive on nice new roads. It also means logically, that if you can just about afford a car (and not e-Tolls) after travelling for many years in a minibus taxi and you need to travel on GFIP roads, well SANRAL want you to rather go back to traveling in the taxi or other alternative public transport?

SANRAL is the acronym for the South African National Roads Agency Limited — an agency of the Department of Transport owned by the government and not permitted to make a profit — whose role is to maintain, fund, operate and rehabilitate national roads in South Africa. In its presentation to the electronic toll panel back on November 6, 2014 — in which there are some interesting charts, statistics and information — there is a warning that “With NO new toll roads, the implication is that major capacity upgrades required on high traffic routes needs to be funded from non-toll budget, resulting less budget for maintenance of network.”

However — according to this press statement released from the Congress of South African Trade Unions back on January 15, 2015, which calls for the complete elimination of electronic tolls altogether — “The big majority of those who drive on the tolled roads do so not through choice but because they have no alternative way of making vital journeys, particularly to and from work.”

That statement resonated with me, as I have been vehemently against electronic tolling of motor vehicles — especially when no reasonably viable alternative is available. The Golden Gate Bridge was switched to all-electronic tolls in 2013, as I first reported in this article on Sunday, May 12, 2013; and in that article, I wrote that I understand the arguments that electronic tolls can be beneficial: no slowing down or stopping, no idling engines which can pollute the environment, and possibly less expensive tolls…

…but to me, I have always felt that electronic tolls are a potentially nefarious way to render drivers to be complacent about paying tolls: you do not think about how much you are paying while driving. You may gripe and grumble when it is time to pay your bill — but that is probably it.

Nevertheless, I would prefer to have a choice. Keep one manned toll booth and one automatic cash toll machine lane which dispenses receipts while having all of the remaining lanes electronic. I believe that would be a compromise which keeps the options available to all. I personally would use the automatic cash toll machine lane which dispenses receipts.

If electronic tolls are indeed the future — or, ever increasingly, the present — then rental car companies should not charge exorbitant fees to its customers for the use of their transponders.

I never liked the concept of tolls. I do understand that they can help pay expenses for maintenance and repairs of bridges, tunnels and highways — but I am against them if tolls are a form of double taxation where taxes are already paid by taxpayers for those bridges, tunnels and highways. Although there is the argument that drivers from outside the jurisdiction of the bridge, tunnel or highway should pay to use them rather than the local resident who may not use them at all, I would prefer that tolls were eliminated altogether. Then again, the money has to come from somewhere to build, repair and maintain bridges, tunnels and highways.

That is the point of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance — or OUTA — in item 13 of its frequently asked questions:

Should the Government simply not pay for the roads with our taxes? Why should we now pay for GFIP when we pay taxes, our annual vehicle license fee, local taxes, a Fuel Levy and long distance tolled routes?

1. Well, Government should pay for it but we understand that the money has to be found somewhere given the borrowed money raised through Bonds (provided by the Government Pension Fund) was spent on the upgrade. OUTA and its members have suggested that in the instance of the GFIP, the public (road users) would be more willing to support the use of the Fuel Levy and other funding schemes to help pay not only for GFIP but also other major road projects across the country.

2. Government would be wise to engage with interested stakeholders and agree which roads are the priority and why? Who decides what gets done to which road?  Nobody other than Government seems to decide, but are they the best people?  Surely many of the associations representing road users could be involved?  After all they and other users pay for the improvements.

That the money is sorely needed to build and maintain roads can be used as an argument in support of electronic tolls; but I still maintain that consumers should have a choice of an alternate route without tolls — or at least an option to physically pay a toll with cash or credit card at the toll booth itself while driving on the highway. It is already difficult enough to consume valuable time with some companies and agencies getting electronic billing mistakes corrected after the fact — and there is something to be said for having a debt paid immediately without having to think about it any longer or be concerned with it in the future.

Paying highway tolls should not require an engineering degree to figure out. Furthermore, people who reside in states which have few or no highways with electronic toll collection and drive to locations which have them cannot use those highways at all because their vehicles lack the necessary toll transponder. While I would not exactly call it economic apartheid, this borders on discrimination, in my opinion. Why should drivers be penalized from using a toll road simply because they have cash instead of a transponder?

There needs to be more choices for motorists, in my opinion. For example — for those motorists who want to drive between Dulles International Airport and either Interstate 66 or the Beltway near the District of Columbia — the Dulles Access Road is sandwiched in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. That is a nice choice — but because exits and entrances are limited, motorists who use the road for commuting must unfortunately pay the tolls if they want to use that highway.

In the Atlanta area — as with a growing number of other metropolitan areas around the United States — variable toll lanes give the consumer a choice: if there is traffic and you are willing to pay extra to get to your destination faster, use the variable toll lane. However, the tolls increase in cost as more traffic is backed up on the highway…

…and if you are in a vehicle with two or more occupants, you can travel in the toll lane free of charge. What I do not like is that you have to purchase a transponder for that privilege.

It seems to me that in many cases — such as the implementation of electronic tolls in South Africa — companies and government entities seem to simply set policies solely based on their own research and benefit rather than involving the public and their customers to gather as a community to reach equitable decisions. Consumers should have a choice of options and be able to decide what is in their best interests — whether it pertains to electronic tolls or passing through airport security checkpoints — even as technology progresses where financial transactions, travel, and other experiences become increasingly virtual.

If the South African National Roads Agency Limited — or, for that matter, any agency which administers policies and maintains highways, bridges and tunnels — wants to implement toll roads, they should consider more viable options, which include variable toll lanes; an option for the manual collection of tolls; reasonable alternate routes with no tolls charged; and improved public transportation options.

Otherwise, do you agree or disagree that it could possibly be a form of “economic apartheid” for the aforementioned reasons?

The image at the top of this article is a screen shot from this video from the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance.

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