The South African Roads Agency (Sanral) has begun serving members of the public with letters of demand for outstanding debt on e-tolls.
However, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) says “letters of final demand” should not be confused with a summons, as it is a low commitment step that does not officially initiate legal proceedings.
Last month, Sanral said e-toll defaulters may start receiving civil summonses from sheriffs in different jurisdictions in Gauteng.
Electronic Toll Collection, the company responsible for collecting e-toll payments, has also warned motorists not complying with the system should expect “intensified collection activity”.
Outa points out Sanral’s past behaviour and processes have laid the ground for a very strong defence in the form of a collateral challenge against the roads agency, if and when a summons arises for non-payment of e-tolls.
“For instance, we have examples of motorists who have previously been compliant and eventually gave up due to the scheme’s failure to account for and manage their queries and billing errors raised on their invoices,” says Wayne Duvenage, Outa chairman.
“Others have never received invoices in accordance with the scheme’s rules, while in other cases, incorrect bills were not removed from their accounts due to a cumbersome and ineffective dispute resolution mechanism.”
Outa points out that “for motorists that have entered into an agreement with Sanral to pay e-tolls under duress, and who remain ‘indebted’ to Sanral, the case could very well revolve around the validity of the agreement.
“We are aware of many motorists who signed up for the scheme out of fear of being prosecuted, not knowing that significant and valid questions surround the lawfulness of the scheme’s introduction, or that Sanral had not ensured their equipment was certified in accordance with the Legal Metrology Act, or that the Department of Transport would change their minds and not pursue their incessant threats of criminal charges against e-toll defaulters, seven months after the scheme was launched.”
According to Outa, the public discontent with the e-toll scheme and Sanral’s threatening approach towards their justified defiance becomes more widespread every day.
“It is unfortunate that despite the continued low compliance levels, government persists in trying to force its failed scheme onto an unwilling public, whose resistance has remained strong throughout the debacle. The showdown between the state and the people on the e-toll matter will continue to intensify until Sanral and their bosses eventually realise the public will not bow down to their pressure.”
The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is making an all-out effort to collect as much outstanding e-toll debt as possible ahead of its meeting in May with Moody’s Investors Services.
Sanral, which is responsible for the maintenance and construction of national roads, will be assessed by Moody’s over the next few months along with SA as a country, a number of other state-owned companies and government structures.
The ratings agency’s investigation kicked off earlier this month with a meeting with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Treasury officials.
The agency put Sanral’s rating on review for a downgrade earlier this month, along with SA’s own rating. Moody’s had downgraded Sanral’s outlook from stable to negative in January last year, confirming this finding again in July. Key to its assessment was a concern about Sanral’s ability to collect outstanding e-toll debt. Failure to do so would cut the road agency’s cash flows and raise its debt, which was already at R47-billion at the end of March last year.
In November, outstanding e-toll debt amounted to R5,9-billion and this has probably climbed since then.
Sanral spokesman Vusi Mona says on Monday credit ratings agencies and investors were concerned about a culture of non-payment of e-toll fees.
Sanral had to demonstrate its commitment to collect outstanding debt. Moody’s had clearly stated that Sanral’s rating could be downgraded because of its “inability to effectively enforce e-toll payments, leading to deteriorating cash flows and increased borrowing needs”.
“Although everyone – including those opposed to the system and nonpayers – has expressed concern about the impact of a downgrade of the sovereign and individual credit ratings, they fail to see the direct role their actions have on ratings,” Mona explains.
To tackle this, the agency announced last week that it would begin issuing civil summonses against persistent defaulters and on Monday issued a statement warning of the expiry of the 60% discount period at the end of next month.
Mona says that current payments of e-toll fees by Gauteng motorists of R80-million to R90-million a month were below projections, although still higher than the R60-million in the August to September period.
The discount on historic e-toll debt would expire at the end of next month.
The once-off discount applies to all unpaid e-tolls levied on the inner-Gauteng highways from the implementation of the e-toll system between December 2013 and 31 August 2015.
Mona warned that the discount would not be extended and urged motorists to pay sooner rather than later as there might be a rush at the end of next month, which could see some of those willing to pay lose out on the offer.
He says that the response to the discount offer had so far been encouraging, but it would be possible to gauge its success only at the end as many motorists were waiting until the last minute to take up the offer. He says some payments would come in after the deadline because of the payment arrangements some motorists were entering into in order to clear their records.
Mona says fewer than 20% of defaulting road users contacted for collection flatly refused to pay.
Some people and businesses have indicated that they are delaying payment for as long as possible for them to “earn” interest on the money.
By Lisa Ensor for www.bdlive.co.za