The outcome of government’s ever-forthcoming decision on e-tolls is beside the point. Much more important is the fact that it’s not yet been made.
I wanted to write this piece in November because e-tolls were in the news: another deadline for a decision had just come and gone, and cabinet ministers seemed to be contradicting each other about what would be done. As it turns out I needn’t have worried about the timing — the decision was pushed out until Christmas, and then again into the new year, and as of writing remains unmade. E-tolls, like Brexit, are not a decision to be made or a policy to be executed so much as a state of being. Like hay fever. Or Banting.
This lack of action is fascinating. E-tolls are a politically damaging issue that both exposed and helped create divisions within the state and the ANC. Any outcome of the process might be unpopular, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be worse than interminable indecision. The fact that the decision remains yet unmade goes to one of the central questions — and problems — with politics: who pays?
E-tolls represent one answer to that: the user — in this case, the driver — pays. This principle, much beloved by economists of a certain bent, makes a certain sense. Why should the residents of Namaqua or Barberton pay for roads used almost entirely by people in Gauteng, who are also richer on average than they are? For that matter, only 27% of households in Gauteng — more or less the richest 27% — use private cars. Why should train- and bus-users pay for roads used by much richer drivers? And if people bore the full costs of what they did, like driving, they would make decisions that reduce those costs — like taking the Gautrain.
The counterarguments to user-pays are also compelling: one of the key roles of the state is to pool resources to pay for public goods that would otherwise be under- or unfunded. People who can’t pay for the basics of life shouldn’t have to, and pooling our collective resources and paying for things we all use builds social solidarity. And, insidiously, setting up the physical and financial infrastructure for user-pays makes it much easier to privatise services later on.
These counterarguments are more convincing when it comes to hospitals and schools than roads, but that’s beside the point — which is that someone has to pay. Real resources — asphalt, steel, labour — need to be compensated for, and that cost has to fall to someone. The challenge of governing is in large part that of distributing the costs of society while achieving whatever goals you have — to grow the economy, help the poorest, get re-elected and so on.
This is what has bedevilled e-tolls, not to mention almost every other major policy question in the new SA. This is also why alternative funding models miss the point. It’s easy enough to say that roads should be paid for out of fuel levies, a supplementary provincial income tax or not at all — let them crumble — but each of those and any other policy would impose costs on someone or another, and that is abhorrent to the government. This is a form of anti-politics: denial, in deed if not in word, of the reality that society has costs as well as benefits, and those must fall somewhere.
The National Party had a clear, if reprehensible, approach to this: the hierarchy of races was a hierarchy of who derived the benefits and who paid the price of the social order. By 2020 this hierarchy has been disrupted, but — despite the protestations of AfriForum — it largely remains. Furthermore, there has never been any determined attempt to redistribute those costs.
What we’ve seen instead has been an attempt to redistribute benefits alone. That explains broad-based BEE (BBBEE), an industrial policy focused on handing out short-term subsidies, and the ongoing dominance of cars and their infrastructure in our cities. It even explains why cabinet ministers have taken to demanding “ideas” from the public. And it explains why, when a large and ambitious policy proposal like e-tolls encounters resistance, the government immediately makes an about-turn — only to find itself spinning like a top for fear of what lies in any other direction.
The e-tolls debacle is what happens when a government is surrounded by highly motivated political actors but remains committed to the anti-politics of indecision.