The poor have been left out of the e-toll debate

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What is not said on a policy issue can be more revealing than what is. The campaign against e-tolling is a remarkable example of how citizens can form alliances across barriers in support of a common cause.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), virtually at war over the youth wage subsidy, both campaign against the tolls. So do business interests and much of the media. Recently, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference rejected e-tolling.

Opposition to tolls has become a badge of civic virtue. Those who reject them invoke democratic slogans and insist they are fighting an attempt by big government to stamp on the citizenry, rich and poor alike. Opposing the tolls is assumed to show that you are willing to take on the powerful in support of social justice and the poor.

To support them is to invite being labelled a government lackey, a friend of tyranny or one who despises the poor. All of which is odd, as e-tolling is a standard exercise in progressive taxation, which is usually supported by those considering themselves friends of the poor.

That business and middle-class interests are campaigning against the tolls is not surprising — they would prefer to avoid paying an additional charge. This may be inconsistent, as the tolls apply the principle of user charges usually favoured by campaigners for freer markets: it is not clear why it is fair for roads in Gauteng to be paid for by fuel users or taxpayers in other provinces who never use them.

But people are rarely consistent when their interests are affected, so we would expect owners of private cars and the DA, most of whose voters would be negatively affected by e-tolling, to oppose it.

What is odd is that they are joined by Cosatu, a major church and others who claim to speak for the poor.

If the tolls are introduced, buses and minibus taxis will be exempt. As these are the transport modes used by poor people, they are not affected and the toll will oblige owners of privately owned vehicles to pay for roads used by everyone. Why then do trade unions, churches and nongovernmental organisations who claim concern for the poor denounce e-tolling? Cosatu’s response is that, because businesses will have to pay the toll and this will increase their costs, it will raise the price of commodities for the poor.

That is probably true. But if Cosatu is consistent, it would also then have to campaign against company tax, which is likely to have the same effect. Somehow this seems unlikely.

The answer is that the e-tolling campaign is important not as a show of citizen power but because it confirms yet again how the poor are excluded from the national debate. We would expect the better off to argue that they should not be further taxed. But we would also expect the voice of the poor to be heard so that the issue can be debated. It has been silenced — by those who claim to be champions of the poor.

That Cosatu and other supposedly pro-poor interests have joined a middle-class alliance suggests that the exclusion of the poor from the debate runs far deeper than we might have imagined — that even those who claim to oppose poverty and inequality are middle class first and champions of the poor second.

In some societies, elected government might step into the breech to ensure that the voice of the poor is heard. Not here. At no stage during the e-tolling debate has the government tried to play its strongest card — convincing millions of poor citizens that the toll would benefit them. Throughout the e-tolling debate, it has presented a variety of reasons the tolls should be introduced and the argument that they would force the affluent to pay for a service enjoyed by the poor has not been among them.

It would be tempting to see this failure purely as a symptom of the government’s inability to handle the e-tolling issue strategically. It never seems to have seriously tried to win the middle class or business over to the tolls.

Nor did it bother to outflank them by mobilising the poor in its support. But the problem runs deeper than ineptitude: a government in touch with the poor (who mostly vote for the governing party) would have known long ago that they were a potential source of support.

The thought seems never to have occurred to it because, like the supposedly pro-poor organisations campaigning against the tolls, it is out of touch with poor people and their interests.

The campaign against e-tolls does say something important about our society.

It shows that a failure to give a voice to the poor is common to all our organised interests — that the voices of the poor are ignored by our entire spectrum, including the government, the trade unions and many social justice campaigners.

More than any other recent issue, the e-tolling campaigning shows who really speaks for poor South Africans: no one.


Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Source: Business Day  



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