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Since the J&P Department issued its statement opposing e-tolls after this was approved by the Admin Board in May, the Church has been thrown into the limelight with lots of media coverage. This also frightened the government who urgently called us for a high-level meeting. Their hope was that we could come to a common understanding of the issue but this failed. We made it clear that we were not in agreement. Even if we did not succeed in changing their minds during the meeting (to which there was never likely to be an openness anyway), at least we were able to resist being co-opted by the rosy picture they painted of the e-tolls. This in itself constituted a victory for the Church.
We had decided together with the SACC that we would not deal with the economic technicalities of the issue since they were bound to bring lots of facts and figures which would contradict the figures that our sources had determined, neither of which could be verified in that context. Our main arguments therefore were:
– We are concerned that our constituents are still unhappy with the decision to introduce e-tolls and uncomfortable about the many questions that have been raised about the process and the final decision taken (as stated in our statement).
– Such lack of trust, combined with a perception that Government is not prepared to listen to our concerns, often leads to people expressing their disagreements in ways that are not constructive or peaceful. We are therefore very concerned that this situation, coupled with all the other socio-economic pressures being felt by the people of the province at this time, has the strong possibility of degenerating into negative behaviour.
– We therefore call for
- the immediate suspension of the GFIP e-tolling project;
- A full-access review of it by an appropriate forum (the public protector, the auditor general or a judicial enquiry); and
- A re-think regarding alternative methods of funding it, such as the fuel levy.
The government showed no sign of acceding to our proposals. However, they indicated an openness to continue engaging with us to find ways to overcome the credibility barriers faced by Government in regard to the decisions taken in respect of this e-tolling project.
In the aftermath of this meeting, we have embarked on the following measures:
- There is an urgency to have a meeting of church leaders to enable them to grapple with and understand all the issues such as the impact on the poor, the difference between the legal and political issues, the fact that there is no objection to paying for the roads, but only how this should be paid, etc. Such a meeting is being called by the SACC next week in the hope of arriving at a common approach.
- Clearer explanations of the issues need to be written and publicised to address the questions and concerns raised by church leaders and members. For example a briefing on the issue with Khanya House staff took place last Tuesday. And the letters to the Southern Cross need to be responded to.
- Demonstrations showing the unhappiness of the people about the e-toll project need to be supported, eg COSATU and OUTA press conferences and actions. A big march is planned for Friday 5 July in Johannesburg where the presence of church leaders is desirable.
- A Day of Prayer involving all churches and faith communities is being planned to take place in the next few weeks.
- A petition with our call is being distributed and signatures are being collected.
- A request for an independent investigation into the whole e-toll project by the Public Protector or a similar institution is being formulated together with COSATU.
- A way is being explored for the different parties (Churches, COSATU, OUTA) to engage with government together to avoid being played off against one another (as happened during our last meeting).
A vital issue for us is to realise that the imposition of the e-tolls is not inevitable. It can be stopped especially since the government realises that the implementation and enforcement of it is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. To avoid a further accumulation of debt, we have to impress on them the need to introduce immediately the alternative methods being proposed of paying for the roads. If we withdraw from this struggle at this stage, we will be playing into the government’s hands.
Furthermore we have to recognise that there will be attempts to divide us as Church. We managed to resist this when they wanted to meet with us separately. We have to be very vigilant about this and again ensure that we don’t play into the government’s hands.