Tolls back then and why this time it’s different; or is it?

by The Editor

FEATURE: History, they say, repeats itself. The current and widespread discontent concering the introduction of eTolling in Gauteng might seem without precedent in the new South Africa but cast your gaze a little further back into the past and you will see the issue has raised its head before. Things then, as now, were much the same: a nationalist government, failing infrastructure and an incapable state. The plan failed back then but we can surely learn a lesson or two from it. Or can we? Charles van Onselen relates the story and asks the questions we should be thinking about today.

Tolls back then and why this time it’s different; or is it?
By: Charles van Onselen

6 March 2012

Back in 1886 the discovery of huge reefs of gold on the Witwatersrand caught State President S.J.P (Paul) Kruger by surprise. The fiercely nationalist but extremely poorly educated Boers of the South African Republic (Z.A.R), had only just regained their independence from Britain. The earlier, relatively modest and short-lived mineral discoveries around Barberton scarcely prepared him or his political constituency – made up largely of farmers – for the dramatic influx of foreigners into the country or for the transition from an agrarian to a more industrialised economy. The spectacular growth of Johannesburg, in particular, demanded an infrastructure capable of servicing a modern economy and an urbanising society. A poorly-equipped administration, supported by a coterie of hand-picked and carefully positioned Dutch experts, managed as best it could.

Extraordinarily complex regional politics militated against the rapid development of an integrated railway system capable of delivering mining machinery to the Rand cheaply or efficiently. It was not until 1895 that the Z.A.R was fully connected to the emerging, regional, rail network. A reliance on Afrikaner transport-riders using ox-wagons to bring in building materials, clothing and food supplies from the coast or the countryside contributed to Johannesburg’s notoriously high cost-of-living. Amidst an early economic boom, long-haul transport riders encountered increasing difficulty in obtaining grazing for oxen on overnight stops, while the condition of the major roads, scandalously neglected, deteriorated.

Throughout 1886 – 1895, the Kruger administration remained under pressure from the mining industry and organised commerce to facilitate the arrival of the railways on the Rand. Demands, emanating from un-enfranchised foreigners – ‘uitlanders’ – were relatively easily dealt with. Pressure from his Boer farming constituency seeking readier access to the burgeoning markets of the Witwatersrand, however, was less easily endured. By the late 1880s, Kruger was caught in a political pincer movement – between demands of insurgent industrial and urbanised ‘outsiders’ on the one hand, and discontented rural producers on the other.

By the time that the President got around to dealing with the problem, however, the mining industry was already in a short-lived recession caused by technical problems encountered in the gold-recovery process. He nevertheless persisted with plans for a nation-wide system of road-tolls; primarily to raise revenue for the always hard-pressed treasury and, secondarily, to secure an improvement in the quality of the rutted highways. In late 1891, it was announced in the Government Gazette that, from 1 December, ox-wagons carrying loads of up to 6,000 lbs would be liable to a toll of 30 shillings on all main routes, throughout the country.

Lacking the administrative competence or expertise to run the system, the state looked instead to the market and private enterprise to manage the tolls. The right to collect tolls at stipulated points was put out to tender with winning bidders being left to manage the risk of making a profit or sustaining a loss. Despite it being a hazardous business – with entrepreneurs in effect taking bets for or against the predicted arrival of railways – scores of tenders were awarded and toll-collectors appointed. The tolls, for some time, produced a handsome return. In just four months in 1894, for example, the state benefited to the tune of over some 9,000 pounds sterling – the equivalent of between four and five million pounds per annum in current terms.

Right from the outset, however, tolls proved to be deeply unpopular. In urban areas, where voters sympathetic to Afrikaner nationalists and the state were harder to find, tolls were objected to because, it was claimed, that they increased the cost of capital goods as well as food. They no doubt did; but Pretoria was always inclined to view Johannesburg as more of a cash cow than a city entitled to independent management. The mayor was appointed from the centre, by the government, not elected by the citizens.

Farmers and transport-riders, too, objected for equally obvious reasons and, despite their cause being championed by a faction within the Volksraad that was increasingly opposed to Kruger, the State President and his cabinet remained obdurately opposed to the abolition of the tolls or a meaningful reduction in charges. In practice, the system proved extremely difficult to manage. It was the subject of endless complaints. Requests for exemption necessitated the appointment of additional clerks, thus swelling a civil service that was not renowned for its efficiency, honesty, literacy or responsiveness. Some toll-collectors let friends through without levying charges while others pocketed part of the proceeds. In some quarters deep suspicions were aroused as to where precisely the fees were going and few users seemed convinced that the system benefited them. It was not clear that the huge returns from tolls were producing a startling improvement in the quality of the existing roads, or funding other necessary developments.

But it was in the countryside, or on the outskirts of the city itself, however, where the system ran into its greatest opposition from the sons of the soil. Many farmers and transport-riders would have nothing to do with them. They opened up new, often circuitous tracks and minor roads, circumventing existing drifts and highways; thereby giving rise to new problems of grazing, right of way and environmental degradation. Others drove directly through the gates, simply refusing to render payment for a system that they deemed to be in conflict with natural justice. Landdrosts – the magistrates – were kept busy corresponding with their superiors and it proved difficult to estimate what secondary, indirect costs amounted to.

Two of the most hated tolls, however, could not easily be avoided. One of them lay on the road connecting the rich farming district from which Kruger himself hailed – Rustenburg – to the market at Pretoria, via the intervening Magaliesberg. A formidable toll house, impossible to avoid without the most serious inconvenience in terms of time and money, stood astride aside the natural constriction in the pass at Daspoort. The other, was at Ferreria’s Battery, on the Kimberley Road exit from Johannesburg. These tolls were the subject of endless complaints but the Kruger administration remained adamant and refused relief to regular users.

In April 1894, amidst an economic upswing, a party of masked Boers set out from the Rustenburg district for Daspoort, using a road that had previously been favoured by Irish highwaymen who had, some months earlier, held up and robbed a post cart of an enormous sum in cash. At the toll the Boers overpowered the collector and, taking a leaf out of the book of bandits who had been sacking mine properties and blowing up safes all along the line of reef, dynamited the toll-house. About twelve months later, the toll-gate at Ferreira’s was also burnt to the ground under mysterious circumstances. The police, patriotic to the core, had no success in tracking down the perpetrators who, chances were, all burghers.

The ZAR tolling system – attacked, cheated, circumvented and sabotaged – did not, however, collapse in the face of political objections from voters or from popular resistance from road users. It may, however, have cost Kruger the votes of several farmers and transport riders in the 1893 presidential elections which he won by the slenderest of margins. The eclipse of the tolls was occasioned instead by technological advance in the shape of an integrated national railway system in 1895. With the successful switch from road to rail transport – the hallmark of successfully developing and industrialising economies everywhere at the time – tolls became less profitable and, in the end, economically unviable. In 1896, amidst the short-lived recession that followed on the unsuccessful Jameson Raid, the government, acknowledging the advent of a new era, abandoned road tolls in the South African Republic.

All of this prompts a few questions besides the fundamental one about ‘who owns the roads’ and, can they bought and sold and, if so, who bears the profit or the loss? Can states that lack administrative competence and easy access to an educated workforce ever manage tolling systems without the assistance of private enterprise and state-of-the-art technology? Are most of the funds raised from tolls ever fully employed to underwrite the maintenance or extension of the national road network? How are road and rail systems best integrated and in what order are they best developed? Is the introduction of a system of road tolls an acknowledgment of failure, or a sign of success – is the economic tide rising or falling? Are tolling systems ever abandoned and, if so, when and why? What constitutes a fair toll and what are the estimates of attrition of revenue as a result of theft – either directly by the private operators, or from treasuries plundering funds for other projects? Or, is the system foolproof? Is a state that introduces road tolls succeeding or failing?

These are enduring questions; most of them have been around since tolls were introduced at bridges in medieval times. Governments come and go, ox-wagon or pantechnicon, the game seems to remains the same. Answers – postcards only please – to Pretoria, and then go out vote as you see fit.

Charles van Onselen is a research professor at the University of Pretoria. An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in Business Day.