Tolling the death knell

Recently, there has been a great deal of heated discussion in South Africa concerning the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP). This project, an initiative of the South African government in partnership with the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL), aims to improve the state of highways in the Gauteng Province. In 2009, SANRAL claimed that the project would inject approximately R29 billion into the South African economy and approximately R13 billion into the provisional gross geographic product, creating nearly 30,000 direct jobs over its lifecycle.

The project’s stated aim was to widen freeways and reduce bottlenecks at busy interchanges. Additionally, the project aimed to provide median lighting and an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) consisting of cameras, electronic notice boards and other traffic management features along the national routes. But the focus of the heated discussion has not been on the improvements for road users as much as it has been on the drawbacks. There is no doubt that the project has benefitted road users to a degree, but the one sore point in it all is the implementation of e-tolls.

The electronic tolling system has been widely criticised by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA), the general public, and even opposition political parties. While all road users agree that there is need to upgrade the road infrastructure and to pay for work already performed in this regard, OUTA—and those who sympathise with OUTA’s case—claims that the e-tolling system is “irrational, unreasonable and illegal.”1

There is no doubt that the system was rushed and that intentions were not properly communicated to the general public before the work commenced. There is no doubt that public debate ought to have been entered into first before the construction of tolling gantries—at massive cost—went ahead. This was not the case and, as it stands, the government and SANRAL now sit with need to justify a system that is simply not supported by the large majority of Gauteng’s road users.

The outcry has been very much public. Road users have not been shy to express their opposition via various forms of social media and by supporting OUTA’s legal case against SANRAL. Implementation of the e-tolling system has been delayed a number of times. Costs have been revised. Ultimately, however, the decision has been made to forge ahead. The most recent news is that the gantries will be activated on 3 December 2013 and road users will begin paying the costs.

In the midst of the public outcry, a burning question has been set before thinking Christians: How ought believers to respond to this system? Generally, overwhelming opposition has been expressed to the project and the government, even from Bible-believing Christians. While I understand the concerns raised—and share many of them—and am certainly not terribly excited about the implementation of the system myself, I have some concerns about the way in which many Christians I know have gone about their expression of disagreement.2

Christians are citizens too

I don’t want to be misunderstood. South African Christians are South African. Anyone with legal citizenship in the country has a right, even a responsibility, to oppose systems and policies that they believe to be unjust. Gauteng road users who are unhappy with the e-toll system have every right to object to its implementation. A dissenting voice ought to be heard. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

Accusations of corruption

One of the most frequent ways in which the system has been opposed is by blanket accusations of corruption. This is par for the course: The moment we don’t like a government policy, the simplest way to dismiss it is by an accusation of corruption.

There is no doubt that corruption exists within the South African government system. However, it is one thing to lay a provable charge of corruption against a person or institution and quite another to dismiss an idea or policy with a blanket accusation of corruption.

While the context is clearly different, I believe that there is a Matthew 18 principle that ought to apply here. In v. 15, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” When opposing sin, Christians must be able to identify the “fault.” There is no room for general, vague accusations.

Blanket accusations of corruption ought not to be used by Christians when complaining about the e-tolling system. To dismiss the entire project because “the government is corrupt” is hardly a Christian thing to do.

Defending the rights of the poor

A second avenue of opposition that I have seen has been an appeal to Proverbs 31:8–9: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” The appeal here is that the system is unsustainable because it is simply too expensive. It will place too much of a financial burden upon road users, and since South Africa is replete with poverty, and there are a good many residents of Gauteng who battle to even put food on the table, charging them exorbitant rates for using the roads is unrighteous and must be opposed.

The principle of defending the rights of the poor and needy is certainly biblical, and it is a noble thing when Christians obey this principle. To be honest, I find it difficult to appeal to this text in support of opposition to e-tolling. The e-tolls will affect road users who own and regularly drive cars on Gauteng freeways. The poor and destitute of our country, who cannot afford their own vehicles and instead make use of public transport, are unaffected—at least directly—by e-toll charges. Government has exempted public transport from these charges. What really lies behind this complaint, I suspect, is the (not insignificant) effect that the e-tolls will have on the pockets of motor vehicle owners.

Of course, we do not want to be entirely naïve here. There will no doubt be a domino effect of the e-tolls, which will impact the poor and needy in the country. E-tolls will raise the cost of transport, which will in turn raise the cost of food prices, etc. Everyone will feel it. But to suggest that the direct cost of the e-tolls is exorbitant for the poor and destitute in Gauteng is really something of a smokescreen.

Making it unworkable

The big debate at the moment is whether or not to purchase an e-tag. E-tag users are registered on the system. Their e-tag is either topped up with funds, which are deducted as they travel under gantries, or linked to a credit card, which is charged daily for all travel costs. E-tag users pay a discounted fee.

The other option is to refuse an e-tag and to be billed directly instead. The chargers are higher in this regard, but it is a viable and legal option. No one is obligated by law to register for an e-tag. The system encourages, but doesn’t demand, the use of e-tags.

Many road users have publicly stated their intention to avoid e-tags in the hopes of rendering the system unworkable. The idea is that SANRAL will incur exorbitant collection costs, and the unreliability of the South African postal service, which will result in road users not receiving their bills, will ultimately render the entire system unworkable and lead to a wholesale abandonment. They intend their opposition to e-tolling to toll the death knell for the entire system.

Proponents of this approach are quick to point out that they are not actually disobeying the government, because e-tags are not legislated, but are merely trying to force the authorities to rethink the system. What this really amounts to is obedience to the letter but not the spirit of the law.

The Christian principle is obedience to both the letter and the spirit of the law. Jesus made that plain in the Sermon on the Mount. It is right not to commit murder, but vengeful anger is effectively the same thing (Matthew 5:21–26). Abstinence from physical adultery is not enough; we need to guard our hearts against lust (Matthew 5:27–30). The point is this: We can sin in our hearts even while we are outwardly obedient to the letter of the law. The lawmakers may be fooled, but God is not—and neither is he honoured.

There is a further biblical issue that needs to be considered in this regard. When the Jews were taken captive to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, they were being taken to a land that was not theirs. They were being subjected to a corrupt government that did not honour God. And what was God’s counsel to them? It was certainly not to make it as hard as possible for Nebuchadnezzar to govern them. Quite the contrary: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4–7).

Nebuchadnezzar was an unjust king. He was violent, bloodthirsty and idolatrous. But God instructed the Jews to seek the welfare of Babylon because they would find their welfare in its welfare.

The concept of making the e-toll system unworkable flies in the face of this principle. As Christian citizens of South Africa, we should make the government’s job easier, not harder. And while we may well object, through the right channels, to policies that we consider unwise, we have no recourse to disobey unless the policy itself is blatantly unbiblical.

Civil disobedience

This brings us to the overarching question: Is the e-toll system cause for civil disobedience? In the book of Acts, when the apostles were arrested for preaching the gospel and instructed to cease from this activity, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Many a time, Christians have appealed to this verse to justify civil disobedience. But while Christians certainly must obey God rather than men, it is usually possible to obey God and men.

When the apostles made this famed declaration, their choice was legitimately between obeying God or men. To obey God, they must continue preaching the gospel; to obey men, they must cease preaching the gospel. They could not preach the gospel and not preach the gospel at the same time. They chose to obey God because men had no authority to command them to stop doing what God commanded them to do.

In the case of e-tolls, there is no direct conflict between government policy and God’s commands. Christians have no real recourse to claim, in this instance, that disobedience to the government is required in order to obey God. Our responsibility is to obey the government, and to do so willingly. Even if the person in a position of authority is not respectable, the position has been ordained by God and we must honour the person by virtue of the position he holds.

Both Paul (Romans 13:1–7) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13–17) made this clear. Paul told us that to resist authority is to resist God, and Peter told us quite plainly, “Honour the emperor.” Significantly, both Paul and Peter were eventually executed by the very emperor whom they exhorted their readers to honour. Nero was hardly an honourable man, but the apostles understood that the position of emperor was ordained of God, and that whoever filled that position was instituted by God. Any authority that we have stands in the place of God, and insofar as that authority figure speaks in the sphere in which God has given him authority, we must obey.

The question, then, is, is there anything in Scripture that would give us cause to think that payment of e-tolls is clearly contrary to Scripture? If not, then we must obey. And, as I have suggested above, we must do so willingly, not trying to make the government’s job as hard as we possibly can, for to resist authority is to resist God.

The doormat argument

At this point, of course, the doormat argument is raised. Does this mean that Christians must just sheepishly do as they are told without objection?

This is an emotionally-charged question, and one person’s definition of a doormat may well differ from another’s. But when it comes to issues such as this, we must be careful to make decisions principally rather than pragmatically. The deciding factor is not emotion, suspicion or our wallet. The deciding factor is what God says.

As I have suggested, there are avenues that can be followed. We can petition. If OUTA continues its legal opposition to e-tolls, or if opposition political parties do the same, we can support their case. We can pray for wise decisions to be made by government officials. We can choose to bypass e-toll gantries by way of back roads where possible. What we ought not to do is disobey or make government’s job unnecessarily difficult.

It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the coming months and years. I have already started to see strong opponents of the e-toll system give into the pressure to get an e-tag because, ultimately, it will benefit them financially. It remains to be seen how long opposition to e-tags continues once the bills start coming in.

Perhaps the entire system will just become another necessary evil as people realise that it’s not going away and they just have to live with it. Or perhaps pressure from various segments will cause the government to reconsider their options.

In the meantime, the Scriptures are clear on the responsibility of Christians: Obey the government, do so gladly, and co-operate with them as much as possible to make their God-given responsibility as easy as possible to fulfil.

  1. You can read in more detail about the basis for OUTA’s case here.
  2. Sadly, many Christians I know have expressed their intention to respond to the implementation of e-tolls in the same way that non-Christians have. In much of what I have read, there is no distinction between believers and unbelievers in this regard.

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