So much has been said, thought and felt in terms of the new freeways around Gauteng. Now, however, we must deal with the subsequent plans to pay for these infrastructure improvements. (Did we really think that someone else would pick up the tab?) For so many months (it felt like years!) we put up with the infernal lane closures and the traffic jams on the highways. We may even have been personally involved and suffered loss as a result of a bumper bashing incident or two. No doubt there were subtle elements of pride and satisfaction that we secretly felt in our hearts at what has been achieved by our supposed third-world nation in terms of hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup and the management of projects in preparation for that major spectacle.
Certainly, we would all admit that we are thankful now for completed multilane highways and a generally improved traffic infrastructure. The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) has succeeded in doing just what it promised. But whatever satisfaction there is for us as we choose our lane amongst the five available, the whole deal is being decidedly soured by the prospect of passing under fancy gantries and having each experience cost us a pretty packet. Even the soft blue light at night doesn’t sweeten the deal! (The ultra-violet light is part of the registration reading technology.)
Many are the voices that have been raised, are being raised, and will yet be raised, demanding a rethink on the part of the authorities. The whole scheme seems ill-conceived and poorly planned at best, and at worst may even be completely unworkable. Even the foundational legality of the whole scheme is being actively debated at this very moment.
While the sheer volume of cars potentially paying whatever the cost-per-kilometre may bring a smile to the face of authorities seeking a revenue stream, the alternative prospect of mass civil disobedience and noncompliance brings a smirk to many a face of hard-pressed and cash-strapped consumers. “How on earth will they be able to pursue us all for non-payment? Let’s see them prosecute the lot of us! We’ll clog the system and bring it crashing down!” None of us are strangers to such catastrophic thoughts, I’m sure! The adversarial them-versus-us dynamic is always delicious in some respect, is it not?
But once the dust has settled, which it is now starting to do, and now that we have heard the sane and calming voice of our respected minister of finance, we are all beginning to wonder what the real ethics are on the matter. Can we as believers maintain our jutting jaws, our defiant swagger and our clenched fists as we determine that we simply will not pay? (This is best said with slightly raised voice and fist pounded on nearest table.) Are we free to insist that this is “bureaucratic madness,” “corruption” and “daylight robbery,” and therefore feel justified in our resistance to these plans? These are certainly serious questions for us believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to answer for ourselves.
The pressure is on us to answer these questions right now, because in less than a month’s time, our rapid progress underneath these gantries is going to start registering on some system and generating a debt in our names. Do we need to pay? Are we going to give in, be part of the system (i.e. go and get our e-tag), and thereby weaken the case of the rest of the population who were hoping that we could keep a united front in our wholesale resistance to government’s plans? According to which biblical principles can we make our decision on the matter?
Before we answer the question, one further issue must be put on the table as we seek to appreciate all that is going on in this social debate: As a nation, some of us have in the past been part of mass action politically and economically, refusing to register or pay in some or other protest action against government. The opposition to the pass-laws is a case in point. The opposition to the system only worked because everyone (or at least the vast majority) was part of it. The collective weight of resistance won the day. The community ensured that everyone played their part; no one was allowed to break rank. This history is important, because, especially amongst the formerly white community, this solidarity shown by blacks was secretly admired, and now in this situation many people want us all to join hands for once, and show a united front against the e-toll system. “Stop being such spineless and passive consumers!” is the cry. The pressure is on us all not to let the team down.
Those who know the political game inform us that the authorities only ever expected 30 cents per kilometre from us, but they came in high so that they could be seen to be making reasonable concessions (even using some sleight of hand by apparently making concessions on the cost per kilometre while simultaneously increasing the fuel levy). Others speak of COSATU’s stance against the tolls being mere anti-Zuma politics, rather than a principled voice on the side of the poor. “Who cares?” some say. “At least they’re helping us to mount a greater opposition to the system!”
Given all the above, and notwithstanding the unresolved legal considerations, we still ask: What should Christians do? Do we use the roads and pay as per legislation? Do we use the roads and wait for the authorities to force us to pay? Or do we commit ourselves not to use the roads, finding alternative untolled routes?
As I read the situation, and especially as I understand what the Bible says regarding such a situation (i.e. where the God-ordained authorities are placing certain demands upon us that we do not agree with, and think are unreasonable and untenable), while we keep up the pressure for changed legislation regarding e-tolling, we need to do one of only two righteous things: either find alternative routes, or pay what we owe. It’s as simple as that!
Romans 13 could not be plainer in my understanding: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Resisting these God-ordained authorities, where they are acting within the moral boundaries of their mandate, is akin to resisting God. “But that’s precisely the issue,” many will say. “E-tolling is immoral!” But is that really the case? Abortion is immoral. Slavery is immoral. Any contravention of God’s law is immoral. But levying an unpopular tax is certainly not immoral, even if it is unwise, unpopular and prejudicial when viewed from a political, social or economic perspective.
Let’s be clear: The proposed e-tolling system is certainly a bitter pill to swallow (and we would all love it to just go away!). It will certainly force us to make some adjustments in terms of our travel patterns. Economic reality is often harsh, and limited resources mean adjusted spending priorities. Our reluctant paying should certainly motivate more earnest prayers for wise leaders and prudent leadership of our overtaxed population.
But here is the crux of the matter for us spiritually: Below the surface of this issue lies our willingness (or unwillingness) to submit to God and His sovereign providence in allowing the authorities to implement this unpopular and expensive economic device. We simply may not play fast and loose with the clear injunction of Romans 13:1-7. If we choose to do so, we will incur not only the wrath of the authorities, but also the wrath of God. Our subjection in this matter is not weak. It is wise, because our conscience is at stake—and our collective integrity too!
Let’s have the practical financial foresight to recognise that letting things slide now, in terms of compliance, will only make things more complicated later on—such as when we come to renew our license and then face a huge outstanding bill!
Let’s have the devotional foresight to recognise that this particular issue (more than any other one on the current community landscape), if it remains unresolved in our minds, will have the potential to trigger spiritual schizophrenia, in which we apparently worship God joyfully on Sunday but live like thieves and grumpy rebels against Him as we drive to work and back Monday through Friday! Such guilt and hypocrisy will undoubtedly wage war on the soul!