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In divided S. Africa, anger at new road tolls proves a powerful unifying force

The ruling ANC pushed through new electronic tolls after years of opposition. It could pay a price in upcoming national elections.

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Much of the South African public is not happy about new electronic road tolls that were launched around Johannesburg on Tuesday. The tolls have also stirred up political tensions between the ruling ANC party and the labor federation that has long supported the ANC.

Siphiwe Sibeko

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An unpopular new road toll implemented by South Africa's ruling African National Congress may cost it some serious votes in upcoming national elections and potentially loosen its otherwise firm grip on the country's politics.

The new tolls electronically monitor and charge motorists, cost as much as $45 a month, and have just been inaugurated in the nation's wealthiest province this week after years of public opposition. 

But even as the tolls have created traffic jams, they have united people and organizations that would otherwise have little in common – and provided opposition parties with a surprisingly potent campaign issue.

Opponents say e-tolls were implemented without proper public consultations, are unfair to motorists in Gauteng Province, and waste money, with too much of the collected revenue going toward administration.

The uproar over tolls adds to the woes of the ruling ANC, which has been rocked by scandals, most recently revelations that more than $20 million has been spent for “security upgrades” to President Jacob Zuma's private residence in a rural area, on tribal Zulu land.

The ANC's dominance is also threatened by new opposition parties. These include an organization led by a charismatic former ANC youth leader, Julius Malema, who is trying to undermine the party's support among poor and marginalized blacks.

The e-tolls debuted Tuesday on special freeways in Gauteng to almost immediate revulsion by wide swaths of the public. 

The government has responded by saying e-tolls are inevitable and necessary to pay the debts incurred for building "world-class highways" that have been recently refurbished.

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To lessen the burden, e-tolls have been capped at the $45 a month figure, and the government estimates most drivers will spend no more than $20 in the same period. But this has not placated the public.

South African columnist Eusebieus McKaiser writes that anger at e-tolls are a sign of a larger discontent in the nation

“Anger about e-tolls is about much more than e-tolls. E-tolls are a spark igniting deeper dissatisfaction with the government. Dissatisfaction that has been slowly building up,” he stated in a recent column.

“If the cost of living keeps rising but unemployment remains stubborn, inequality is deep still and poverty all too familiar, eventually an insufficiently responsive government will elicit gigantic public anger.”

The public anger has united South Africans across a broad political and racial spectrum. It has created common ground between staunch ideological opponents such as unions allied to the ANC and opposition political parties like the far left, nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters and the free market Democratic Alliance.

The DA, South Africa's largest opposition political party, has begun to campaign on e-tolls, with their top provincial candidate, Mmusi Maimane, promising he would “fight” the unpopular tolls if he were elected to lead the province.

But while e-tolls may cost the ANC votes, it is unlikely to cost them an election. Political analysts have observed that voters in many democracies continue to support political parties based on identity--who their families and communities back--and that South Africa is no different. 

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