E-TOLLS have long been a proxy for the battle between political parties in Gauteng. The contentious freeway improvement project has ruffled feathers on all sides of the political divide, from opposition parties to African National Congress (ANC) allies such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Discussions, task teams, protests, go-slows on the improved highways in question, and even pleas by the provincial ANC to prevent the law governing e-tolls from being signed into law have all come to naught and the system went live in December last year. But the fight is far from over.

On Thursday, the Democratic Alliance protested against the system outside Parliament, using it as fiery political currency in its attempt to shore up support in the country’s richest province.

However, the game-changing battle against e-tolls will start in earnest on Friday, when the ANC in Gauteng kicks off its 12th provincial conference.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura reached his decision to set up a review panel to assess the system’s socioeconomic effects during an ANC provincial executive committee meeting.

This week, Gauteng ANC chairman Paul Mashatile admitted that the strong voices of opposition to e-tolls were difficult to ignore. It is not necessarily the "user-pays" principle that citizens of Gauteng are opposing, it is simply that people feel they are paying too much. Coupled with high petrol prices and the cost of living in general, citizens view it as unaffordable.

Mashatile said that during the May elections, many people did not vote because of e-tolls. The ANC’s own research shows that it had an effect on the party’s election campaign.

The party’s electoral support in the province slipped from 64.04% in 2009 to 53.59% in May.

The ANC makes this assessment in documents ahead of this weekend’s conference, in which it describes this year’s provincial election as the "most challenging since 1994".

Support from the "working class" and the "middle strata", which make up the majority of the population in the province, was eroded in the latest poll.

While the majority of the working class remained loyal to the ANC, the party said many stayed away and simply did not vote, while the Economic Freedom Fighters received 10% of the vote, mainly from this group.

The party’s research showed that the "black middle strata" — almost 45% of which is located in Gauteng — voiced their opposition to a variety of issues, with e-tolls a key gripe.

The ANC’s labour ally, Cosatu, is among the most vocal critics of e-tolls, although its internal problems hobbled its ability to launch a meaningful national campaign against it.

The party’s research showed that the "black middle strata" — almost 45% of which is located in Gauteng — voiced their opposition to a variety of issues, with e-tolls a key gripe.

Clearly, the two are intrinsically linked: to win back voters in Gauteng, the ANC in the province must win the battle against e-tolls. It simply cannot afford to be ambiguous about it, particularly with another tough election in the next 20 months.

And a local government election is a different beast altogether — the ANC’s support in the previous local elections in Gauteng slipped from 62.5% to 58.8%. This year’s elections showed that the party’s support in key Gauteng metros — Johannesburg and Tshwane — had also dropped. The ANC generally fared better in national and provincial elections, with voter turnout in local elections lower.

Both cities have made submissions on their concerns over the economic effect of e-tolls on their residents.

The ANC in Gauteng is likely to take a strong stance against the system this weekend and then lobby the party for a lasting solution at national level at next year’s national general council.

"We are saying to the ANC, if our policies affect our people negatively, it must be reviewed and even scrapped," Mashatile said.

The party will have a strong case in the face of the possible loss of the country’s economic heartland. Besides, insiders argue, e-tolls were not ANC policy to begin with.

Watch this space; the e-tolls battle is about to take a fascinating turn. The fuel levy is understood to be a key consideration in discussions on alternatives. And South African National Roads Agency CEO Nazir Alli’s cogent argument on e-tolls’ necessity, in these pages this week, may be trumped by politics.

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