Ten years of OUTA’s existence, a defiance campaign that gave teeth to a corruption fighting watchdog
Over the past decade, OUTA’s model of civil intervention unusual - using a business mindset and project management strategies - has developed into a broad approach to fight corruption, maladministration and irrational government policy making.
It was 22 February 2012, when a small team of transport and travel industry leaders watched the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, deliver his Budget speech in Parliament. They were waiting for one item to be announced, which would either trigger the birth of a new civil activist organisation, or not.
On that day, Minister Gordhan announced that government was sticking to its decision on the Gauteng e-toll scheme, despite massive public outrage expressed at the cumbersome and costly electronic tolling system, set up to pay for the recent upgrade to an urban commuter freeway network.
Formally launched in March 2012 as the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA), the consortium of industry bodies (spearheaded by the car rental industry) initially sought to convince government that its e-toll plan was wrong and, if unsuccessful in this regard, it would attempt to halt the scheme through the courts. Unfortunately, the state was too far down the road to turn back on its decision and the courts could not intervene, as the money had already been borrowed and the roads were built. As far as the authorities were concerned, the show had to go on, no matter how unworkable, costly or cumbersome the ill-conceived idea had become.
By mid-2015, with over three years of OUTA’s existence committed to the e-toll challenge, the scheme had been operating for 18 months since switch-on in December 2013 and, as predicted by OUTA, it was failing fast. Less than half the freeway users were paying their e-toll bills, well below government’s dream of compliance levels of over 90%.
Exhausted by costly legal challenges, with no money in OUTA’s bank account and the e-toll scheme collapsing on itself, OUTA’s directors - who were eager to get back to work and earning a living again – were about to close the organisation’s doors when the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) started sending legal summonses to e-toll defaulters. It dawned on the small and stretched OUTA team that the state was about to make criminals of hundreds of thousands of motorists, who had defied an irrational and costly decision, one that was certainly not in the best interests of society.
More worrying though, was that a deceitful scheme with all the hallmarks of corruption and maladministration would steer billions of Rand into the hands of undeserving private offshore companies. OUTA had to stay the course and approach this challenge from a new angle.
By the end of 2015, the small OUTA team launched a plan to defend every motorist who received a summons for unpaid e-toll bills, on condition that it was financially able to do so. The choice had to be made by the motorists: either pay their e-toll fees to SANRAL or contribute to OUTA’s legal defensive challenge that sought to protect the rights of motorists in court. The public at large chose OUTA and the biggest civil defiance campaign since democracy was well underway, to end government’s bullying and coercive approach.
Mandated by more than 3,000 motorists and businesses to defend their summonses, OUTA’s strategy had SANRAL on the back-foot, with the state eventually having to abandon its abusive summons route by March 2019. Since then, the e-toll scheme has sunk closer to its demise, with Gauteng motorists no longer fearing SANRAL’s threats and coercive tactics, leaving government no option but to come to terms with finding a way out of the mess it had created, a matter which they are still finding difficulty with.
While the new e-toll challenge was unfolding, in 2016 OUTA expanded its strategy beyond the e-toll debacle, giving rise to a new model of civil activism that would challenge the state’s wasteful and corrupt ways, as well as its often-blinkered policy making approach. State capture was in full swing as OUTA relaunched its acronym and purpose as the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse.
By 2017, using its own internal legal capacity and working with small law firms and senior counsel at reduced rates, OUTA was able to introduce its style of civil intervention that made use of the courts and other oversight structures - at far lower cost - when seeking to hold people to account.
By 2018, having navigated structural growth pains and challenges, over the next few years OUTA’s team of 45 or so professionals, honed their skills, governance and internal processes to become a well-oiled machine, engaging with whistle-blowers and sensitive information to tackle the errant conduct of many who abused their positions of power.
Over the past 10-years, OUTA had opened numerous projects, ranging from short meaningful engagements and submissions to oversight bodies, to multi-year projects costing several millions of Rands, such as the Dudu Myeni delinquent director case and the matter which recently ruled AARTO as being unconstitutional.
Make no mistake, there is no shortage of work for OUTA and our frustration is that we just can’t get to everything, turning down many requests to tackle large-scale abuse of power, because we simply don’t have enough resources. But that which we do take on is extremely rewarding and uplifting to the team who are forever energised by the work we do.
From the outside, we are told that our work appears to be daunting and depressing, however on the inside it’s quite the opposite, knowing that just about every case and project we take on has a positive impact in moving this country forward. For the team at OUTA, the past 10 years has been exhilarating and we look forward to more internal change, with new strategies unfolding that will further evolve OUTA’s reach and role within civil society.
We have come to value the importance of resilience and perseverance in the work we do, never allowing ourselves to become frustrated the state’s apparent lack of responsiveness to many of the issues and cases we raise. Over time, we have seen many positive shifts within the State toward OUTA’s position on matters, including numerous situations of discrete requests for our input, which has often been met with gratitude by some within the corridors of power.
Most important however, is the positive feedback we regularly receive from our supporters and followers, encouraging the organisation to stay the course and continue to speak truth to power. In so doing, we are acutely aware that OUTA’s existence is a symbiotic one with its tens of thousands of ordinary people and businesses who donate to make OUTA’s work possible.
A positive development since June last year, is that donations to OUTA are now tax deductible through our Section 18A status. Without these monthly donations from our supporters, we don’t exist. And without OUTA, millions more of our taxes would be lost, wasted or stolen, and more irrational policies such as AARTO and e-tolls would be passed, making life unnecessarily difficult for all who live in this amazing country.
By Wayne Duvenage