AT NIGHT the steel scaffolding over the suburban freeways lit up in a striking blue looks rather pretty. But the gantries supporting the new electronic tolls for roads in Gauteng, South Africa’s richest and most populous province, had come to represent the state’s bullying power—and were loathed. Now, in a rare display of people power, the project, due to have begun on April 30th, has been put off indefinitely.
The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) had argued that it needed to impose the tolls, ranging from 58 cents (7.5 American cents) a kilometre for a car to 2.90 rand for an articulated lorry, in order to repay the loan of 20 billion rand it had had to take out to repair and improve 185kms (115 miles) of congested freeways in and around Johannesburg, the business hub, O.R. Tambo, its airport, the country’s busiest and Pretoria, the capital.
The owners of the province’s 1m vehicles argued that they had not been properly consulted, the tariffs were too high and anyway they should not have to pay for suburban commuters’ routes that had never been intended as toll roads. People were obliged to use cars to get to work because there was no safe and affordable public-transport alternative. Furthermore, the high-tech toll system would cost more than the actual road improvements.
Black and white, rich and poor united in outrage. The 2m-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions staged a one-day strike and threatened another bigger one unless the whole system was scrapped. Business leaders moaned that it would increase their costs and deter investors. Operators of minibus taxis feared it would drive them out of business. The Automobile Association urged members not to sign up for the so-called e-tags, which provide for toll discounts but also allow bank accounts to be charged every time a car passes under one of the gantries.
The government offered a one-off 5.8 billion rand to subsidise the tolls for private users and exempt minibus taxis entirely. But the protests went on. So it then agreed to a one-month postponement. This was still not enough. Finally, with two days to go before the scheme’s launch, a high court judge stopped its implementation to allow time for a judicial review. This could take months, perhaps even years. Perhaps it will never be implemented.
The government, underwriting 56% of Sanral’s debt of 38 billion rand, has been left with a big financial mess. The company has already lost 2.7 billion rand in revenue due to earlier postponements of the e-tolling scheme. Every month of delay is reckoned to cost it another 300m rand. Nazir Alli, the company’s boss, has been forced to resign as the fall-guy. Meanwhile, the blue gantries, now a symbol of people power, still merrily light up the Gauteng night sky.