Resistance to the new e-tolls in Gauteng has been widespread. It has brought together groups who normally would never be seen on the same barricade: business and unions, churches and opposition political parties all against e-tolling. The Catholic Church has added its voice to this, noting that the effect of e-tolling – rising costs of personal travel and goods transported by road – will hurt the poorest South Africans. Moreover, they argue, it was introduced without significant public consultation and the implementation is so expensive that much of the revenue raised will go to administration of the system itself. Increasingly, many are calling for civil disobedience to protest e-tolling. But do we understand what this really means?
Civil disobedience is a major ‘weapon’ in the arsenal of non-violent direct action (NVDA). It entails actively disobeying laws considered unjust while explicitly rejecting violence as a means to an end. Thus, a mass sit-down protest in front of SANRAL’s offices would be an act of NVDA. If this was then followed by refusing to disperse when called to, and courting arrest and being arrested without resistance, this would be civil disobedience. But any form of violent resistance or attack on persons or property would make it a riot.
Similarly if 100,000 protesters blockaded the N1 to Pretoria, or parked their vehicles in front of the e-toll monitors, and refused to move until they were arrested by the police, this would be civil disobedience. Once again, when arrested, they would not resist arrest. Indeed, accepting arrest and going to prison is integral to a successful civil disobedience campaign. Mass arrests make news, they highlight the injustice being protested and further pressurise the regime. If large numbers are jailed, even for a short period, it strains the judicial and prison system to breaking point. The greater the number of persons arrested, the less likely anyone actually serves time in prison.
Even more simply, universal refusal to get e-tags and/or to pay e-tolls would cause such administrative block-ups that the system could collapse. In Britain, when Thatcher introduced the poll tax, mass refusal to pay crippled the system and it was reversed in a few years. The British example shows how, when literally millions refuse to obey a law considered unjust, and where local councillors and parliamentarians were sympathetic, the law was made unenforceable.
Another aspect linked to this (though not strictly civil disobedience) is for parties to make e-tolling central to the 2014 election – and for voters to actually vote their anger in 2014. Imagine: Gauteng, richest province in South Africa, electing a non-ANC government!
You get a sense then of what civil disobedience needs: large numbers, careful planning, excellent organising and – above all – discipline! Participants have to be trained in NVDA techniques and must be committed to them no matter the provocation.
Could civil disobedience over e-tolling work in South Africa? NVDA has played a noble role in the South African Struggle: think for example of Gandhi, the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the women’s anti-pass protests in 1956. On the other hand, all too often protest has given way to violence. Marches become looting and burning sprees, as we have seen particularly over service delivery in recent years. This is not NVDA, this is not civil disobedience.