The arguments against the introduction of e-tolls on Gauteng roads have been wide-ranging, including that there may have been better and more cost-effective ways to finance the upgrading of the roads. Although these arguments appear to be valid, the government nonetheless decided to go ahead with the implementation of e-tolling late last year. Despite noteworthy legal challenges, primarily by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA), it has been held to be a valid law passed by a democratic government.

However, the furore around e-tolls has not abated. Its introduction has been followed by a deluge of complaints from motorists against the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) for faulty billing, inefficient handling of billing queries, problems with internet payments and poor customer service. There have also been reports of intimidation tactics: such as sms’s threatening that customers will be handed over to debt collectors. OUTA has presented a 10,000-word complaint to the Public Protector, accusing Sanral of contravening constitutionally enshrined human rights. BDLive reports that the Democratic Alliance also plans to ask the court to declare the legislation used to implement e-tolls unconstitutional.

In a briefing to Parliament's transport portfolio committee on Tuesday 18 February Transport Minister, Dipuo Peters, conceded that there were “teething problems” with the electronic tolling system. Her admission that it constitutes a “positive outcome of implementation of the system” that the problems associated with duplicate and cloned licence plates, unregistered vehicles and vehicles without number plates have been identified is not to her credit. Having implemented a gantry system that tracks usage via vehicles’ number plates, to identify those problems only now tends to confirm the view that the system lacked proper planning and thought at the outset. Her solution to these various problems is simply to instruct Sanral to “sort out the billing challenges and sort it out now."

Given these circumstances, it is pertinent to view this very contentious issue in terms of ethics. Opponents of e-tolls are likely to claim that e-tolls and ethics are a contradiction in terms. However, ethics is especially relevant because this issue raises the question of whether ethics only matters sometimes. Phrased differently, when is it ok to behave unethically? The simple answer, ‘never’, is not the norm. Rather, it is likely to be: when it suits me; when it’s convenient; when it furthers my self-interest or well-being; when it builds my self-esteem; or when it prevents or avoids an unpleasant or difficult situation.

The question of when it’s ok to behave unethically relative to e-tolls may elicit the same responses. Many motorists are not only refusing to buy e-tags, but also implying that they will refuse to pay the tolls. This response is being supported by organisations such as OUTA. Wayne Duvenage, who heads up OUTA, stated in a January 2014 article in the Daily Maverick that “The law must be rational and acceptable to the masses expected to apply and obey it.” He continues to outline the situation “that sparks citizens to see nothing wrong with breaking the law to enforce their rights”. He’s right to the extent that the law does not require anyone to buy an e-tag. But refusing to pay tolls when you have used the toll road and have been invoiced correctly does constitute breaking the law and hence is considered unethical.

It would of course be ideal if all laws were acceptable to everyone all the time. But, in reality, many citizens may disagree with policies and laws passed by the government. While there are actions that those who oppose a law can pursue (such as legal protests), it does not include the ‘right’ to choose which laws to obey or disobey. In a democracy obedience to the law is neither optional, nor can it be exercised sporadically.

Pierre De Vos, who holds the Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town, presents a sound argument against such selective obedience to the law in his blog Constitutionally Speaking, noting that non-payment amounts to a refusal to obey a validly passed law that does not infringe on the fundamental human rights of anyone. He adds that protestors need to recognise that disobeying the law promotes lawlessness: “They demand a right to be lawless in order to oppose e-tolls, while criticising others who are lawless” – others being, for example, strikers who break the law or mini-bus taxi drivers who refuse to obey traffic rules.

He also acknowledges that exceptions may arise when the democratically elected government acts to undermine democracy. In such cases, he recognises that “ignoring the law is aimed at protecting democracy itself and would be morally justified”. Although the impact of e-tolls may be negative for many people, they do not constitute such as an exception because they do not undermine our democracy.

Therefore, even though e-tolls may prompt the question of whether ethics can be selective, the answer remains that being ethical entails continually and consistently abiding by the applicable values and rules - be they the values enshrined in the Constitution or the company’s values, or the laws of the state or the organisation’s rules and policies. Selective or part-time ethics is not ethical: It erodes one’s ethical status and negatively influences those around you. Instead, it is the constancy of ethical behaviour that builds ethical individuals, organisations and countries. And we have need of ethics at all three levels.

© Cynthia Schoeman, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2014