E-tolls: A perfect wedge issue for a troubled Alliance

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On Friday, the DA announced it was giving a million rands to the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, to ensure that it now has enough money to go ahead with its legal bid to stop the tolling of Gauteng's highways. It's been warmly welcomed by OUTA, received a back-handed compliment from Cosatu, and met with thunderous silence from the ANC. It is now official: tolling is an election issue. And the Alliance will have to re-think its own faultlines, again.

Speaking as someone who gets paid to watch politics, some of the most interesting moments occur when an issue that cuts across the usual fault lines appears. Oh, it's fun to watch the ANC versus everyone else when it comes to, say, affirmative action, or dissolving the Scorpions. You get to watch the usual fighting, and the cunning of both sides. But it's a fight we've all seen before, just with different sound-bytes.

Toll roads' fight is different: it is not a straight ANC/Alliance fight against the DA. It's not Number One and Super-Glue and Blade marching shoulder to shoulder. If they did in any march to do with tolling, there would be long knives in their respective backs. The issues that split up people who normally march together really show you where the fault lines are within the Alliance. Thus, they are much more revealing than your usual Gupta scandal.

There's been some criticism of the DA for its latest move. Some claim that it's short-sighted. It's easy and tempting for opponents to say it is a crass buying of votes, literally the equivalent of a few bright beads for people who don't know any better. Some say it's not going to stop toll-roads, and therefore it is pointless, as the judges are going to have the final say anyway.

All of these issues are missing the real point. The DA's aim is not to stop toll-roads; the DA's aim is to win elections. And Helen Zille had her leg-spin working well on Friday, when she said it was now clear that "people who lived in the Western Cape don't have toll-roads, and won't have toll-roads, because they voted for the DA. People in Gauteng will have toll-roads because they voted for the ANC".

As a political statement, it almost takes your breath away, because it's so simple, so hard to refute. Of course, as an issue, a toll road is more complicated than that. But Zille knows history is with her. Her administration has gone to court to stop Sanral's tolling plans in the Western Cape. She can quite happily say she's fulfilling the wishes of voters in the Western Cape.

The ANC's silence on this has been fascinating, almost deafening. You would have thought that by now Jackson Mthembu, or Gwede Mantashe himself, would have issued a wonderfully annoyed response. Something about using White Monopoly Capital to frustrate the wishes of the democratic state. And where's the SACP's statement with the phrase "anti-majoritarian"? (Come on, Blade, buck up! Surely you still have the guts to attack TWO enemies in one week?)

The point is, there is simply no way for them to get on the right side of this. Everyone involved in trying to make toll-roads happen is from the ANC (with the possible exception of Nazir Alli, since we don't know if he belongs to any party, and he's a paid government employee, so he could be, but we don't know that for a fact). What can those who support toll-roads say that will help them to win votes? They could make a worthy argument about the future, and how a vote for toll-roads is a vote for the National Development Plan. That should really work well. Just think, Mantashe on a stage shouting: "Viva User-Pays Principle Viva... Long Live Toll-Roads Long Live!" Let's just say it would be rather difficult to get the people of SA excited about that specific message.

But putting aside the difficult nature of convincing the voting public toll-roads are a good thing, it can be overlooked that the ANC itself is actually split on this issue. The Gauteng ANC has said, through its Provincial Secretary David Makhura, that it's not happy and that it would try to "negotiate a better deal" on the issue. And the ANC in Gauteng is not in good odour at the moment, due its Kamikazi-Kgalema tendencies. But any action against it now would look suspiciously like an attempt to get rid of those who opposed Number One at Mangaung. And the ANC has already had to try hard to bury that story.

As politics goes, that's all fun and good. But here's the really interesting bit.

One of the DA's prime strategies over the last two years has been to find possible points of stress in the Alliance, and push, hard. With the SACP being a shell of itself because of its policy of backing Number One on everything, the real opportunity of finding the fragile points within the ANC rests with Cosatu. And it's with Cosatu where those efforts are beginning to tell.

Last year it was the march on the "New" Cosatu House about the Youth Wage Subsidy. It forced open a dispute between Cosatu and parts of the ANC on economic policy, and thus publicly demonstrated what has been claimed is the way Cosatu is able to force the ANC on some economic issues.

This year, it's the e-tolls.

Cosatu was in an interesting position on Friday morning. It could have decided to stop supporting OUTA because it accepted this money from the DA. That would have placed internal Alliance politics above its desire to stop e-tolls. It's one of those moments when those at the top of an organisation have to really pause and consider what their members would want; what's in their best interests, and thus, to an extent, in the leaders's interest as well.

They went with toll-roads as being the most important. They said it was "opportunistic", but that it wouldn't stop their campaign, or their support for OUTA. In other words, the politics of the Alliance played second fiddle. The interests of Cosatu were more important here. As of Friday, the interests of Cosatu in stopping toll-roads, and the interests of the DA in getting more votes, now led to exactly the same thing.

So the usual fault-lines have been disrupted, and re-set, but only around this single issue. However, once you've agreed on one thing in public, it becomes much easier to agree to a second thing. And once that happens, things start to change. Those with long memories will remember how the ANC reacted to Zwelinzima Vavi's speech to a civil society conference back in November 2010. That came about partly because those who occupy the better carpeted floors at Luthuli House realised that once you get used to someone who used to be an enemy, it becomes easier to work with them, and things can really change over the long-term.

So the question now, of course, is: is this the first crack in the wall of the Alliance? The short answer is no. It's about the fourth or fifth or hundredth, depending on how you count these things. But we're still a very long way off from any kind of splintering off. There's plenty of glue around to keep the Alliance together... for the moment. While there are clear differences of opinion, Cosatu is likely to play a key role in mobilising the vote next year, for the ANC.

But in Gauteng, they're going to find that much harder. Because they have to convince the people who who are supposed to convince the voters that backing the ANC, toll-roads, Guptas and all, is the right thing to do.

You see, the main joy in watching issues that cross fault lines, is that they tend to be the ones that really matter. The issues that could really have an impact on an election.

Written by: Stephen Grootes

Picture credit:  Daily Maverick

  • This article was published Daily Maverick.