For whom the church bell e-tolls?

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Just when you thought the e-tolling argument was over, another new major player has entered the ring. It's big, it wears robes, and it's got God on its side.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Catholic Church has fixed its dog collar, removed the clerical glasses, put aside the incense burner, and told government exactly where to get off.

In short, it's said toll roads are wrong, possibly corrupt, and certainly not transparent. SANRAL, of course, has a response. It's not as strong as it could be.

The Catholic Church moves slowly. You know, we'll have women priests any time this millenium. The pill, well, it's still wrong. Muslims? Um, we'll get back to you on that. And when it makes its mind up about something, it's unlikely to change it.

So when it decides to weigh in on the issue of toll roads, you have to know that this is a considered view. If you go through their full discussion document, you might even want to call it an absolutist view, and it is not good for government and Sanral.

The church says Gauteng's toll roads are wrong for a variety of reasons. The first is that the entire process of creating them has not been transparent. We have not been told why this particular model was used, and certainly, there is still no cogent reason as to why a system that costs so much to run was adopted.

The costs have escalated dramatically since the first system was proposed. And of course, for the church, it's just "unacceptable to toll an existing road without providing an alternative".

That you've all heard before. What you've also heard before is perhaps the religious doctrinal reason that gets them into this argument. Caring for the poor is one of the major tenets of Catholicism (not that we are experts - I'm a retired Anglican, which is close at best, and the editor of this website is even further away: he gets his Christmas and Easter dates wrong!) And of course, tolling these roads will have a direct impact on the poor, and so the church has a responsibility to act.

But what really gives this intervention power is not just the publicity this call will get. It's not that the church has as big a moral voice as it once did. It's that included in this document is a call for people "not to collaborate with the e-tolling procedures until all the matters of concern have been addressed appropriately."

The church is calling for a boycott.

In our political parlance they're saying "Don't buy e-tags, don't buy". It's a call that is going to have resonance. It's going to allow thousands of people, whether they were altar boys or not, to feel completely easy about not paying what a democratically elected government is demanding from them. Equally painfully for the government, it's going to legitimise the opposition arguments to e-tolling.

In other words, this is the kind of intervention in an argument that can have an impact far greater than it really should, because of who's doing the intervention. Because it's the Catholic Church, because it comes with a sort of moral majesty, because it lowers itself into our base political discussions so rarely, this is a voice that will be heard, and heard louder than just about any other.

It goes without saying that the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance is overjoyed, with its head Wayne Duvenage pointing out that all of the church's main points resonate with what it's being saying all along.

Even those godless communists at Cosatu are excited, with Patrick Craven particularly keen that the church has singled out the impact on the poor. As he puts it, "This hits back at the propaganda that this is just a middle class issue, it's not".

But before we get too excited, we have to look at the response, though.

If the OUTA now has God on its side, SANRAL has Vusi Mona.

Mona's had such an interesting ride, from City Press editor to the Presidency via the Hefer Commission. It's a story worthy of an academic essay (and, amazingly for those who are interested in this sort of thing, has actually had the academic treatment - by Rhodes Journalism Professor Guy Berger, no less), and perhaps a moral treatise all on its own.

But we have to give Mona his due. In some ways he's probably the perfect person to be in this role at the moment, because he knows the world of spin well. He's good at his job. And crucially, as not everyone does this, he has done the research, read the White Papers, and taken the trouble to memorise the timeline of this entire sorry saga.

In short, he's professional, and SANRAL does need a really good spindoctor at this stage in the game.

Mona's main point of counter-attack is that the church actually had a chance to object when religious organisations met a Cabinet delegation led by Deputy President (in name) Kgalema Motlanthe.

He says that leaders there were able to make their points, and there was a chance for a very real consultation. He also laments that people are given a chance to talk in a proper forum, stay quiet, and then complain in public about a lack of democratic space. Mona also says it's a pity that this church has gone outside the view of the other religious leaders.

Well, he has a point on the use of democratic space. Perhaps. It's an argument that needs more consideration.

And he's on quite firm ground that people simply didn't complain when e-tolls were first proposed. For various reasons, everyone was asleep. Unless government deliberately kept everyone in the dark on the whole thing, of course.

But on the claim that all religions faiths and churches should agree on something, he's just wrong. It's a bit like expecting the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu to agree on everything. Like, just as an example that comes to mind, e-tolling. So it's not a criticism that can really stand up.

However, Mona appears to avoid, possibly deliberately, a claim that it's odd for the Catholic Church to publicly condemn toll roads, and not have fought an active fight against Apartheid. Of course individual priests and officials did many good things in the Struggle.

But it's hard, probably impossible, for the church to claim that every white Catholic in the land heard a lecture on why Apartheid was a sin every Sunday. It just didn't happen like that. So in a way, it faces an attack on the base of its very legitimacy just on that basis alone. But Mona doesn't go there. And possibly quite wisely.

At its heart, the e-tolling argument is about consultation and transparency, and the lack thereof. It's also tied in what might become a taxpayers' revolt, in that people have simply had enough. Now the balance of power may be shifting back. The judges will have the final word. But they won't be the only ones in the room wearing robes of substance.

By Stephen Grootes

Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He studied at Rhodes University.

Photo: Reuters and Greg Marinovich.

Source: The Daily Maverick