The #FuelPricesMustFall campaign is expected to intensify in coming weeks as organisers rally support for the next protest that will to take place outside the offices of KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu on 17 August. Campaign organiser Paul Jenkins said that protests will continue in line with a recent memorandum sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa to address the rising cost of fuel in the country.
In the last few months the petrol price has increased significantly, resulting in a knock-on effect for consumers across the country. Jenkins took it upon himself to head the campaign starting with social media broadcasts on protest action demanding that the fuel price be reduced to an affordable level.
The protest coincided on Mandela Day resulting in least nine people being arrested in Pietermaritzburg as they blockaded the highway.
Jenkins said that he wanted a direct response from Ramaphosa on why was there such a drastic increase in the fuel price, and that a letter from the Office of the Presidency confirming receipt of the memorandum was not “good enough”. He was directed to contact the office of the Minister of Energy, JT Radebe, instead.
The memorandum to Ramphosa demanded that the president immediately set up a task team to address the increase in the fuel price; that the task team should be made up of relevant ministers, suppliers, producers and leaders of protest groups as well as specialist economists; an interim presidential order be granted to maintain the price of petrol and diesel to a maximum of R10 per litre, effective immediately; and, any and all fuel related prices and increases be vetted and authorised by the task team as mentioned.
Jenkins said that he took on this campaign at his own free will as an ordinary citizen who felt that the fuel price was crippling him and the rest of the people South Africa.
To date, the campaign has been significant as 105 WhatsApp groups have been established with a following of at least 20 000 people on Facebook. Despite the arrest of some protestors, Jenkins said that the placard pickets remained legal.
Meanwhile political analyst and Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (Asri), Ebrahim Fakir, said that while petrol prices have been regularly increasing nobody was making money from it as the rand remained weak.
He said things like buying oil in dollars has become more expensive with a weaker rand. “This is largely a consequence of a combination of sustaining current budgeted expenditure, clawing back the losses because of corruption and affording the new populist promises made.”
The increase in the cost of fuel is compromised by several factors, including the increase in freight, insurance, cargo dues, storage, transport, and financing; the increase in the fuel levy by 52 cents, an indirect tax that goes to National Treasury; the Road Accident Fund levy; and a weaker rand trading on the capital markets and higher global oil prices.
Fakir said that for fuel prices to come down, the government could reduce the general fuel levy. “But once it starts to do this it opens up caveats from where revenue has to be raised from other sources in order to pay for its ambitious programmes. If the general fuel levy is reduced, government will have to raise that money from other sources, like VAT which was already increased and will have a more direct impact on the poor anyway, or it can borrow more, but borrowing has its own serious problems, or it can raise the income tax rates and brackets.
“With greater populist promises , a more ambitious set of expenditure items come on to government’s bill with free higher education and the inception of National Health Insurance being two, land expropriation may be another, and with these someone has to pay for it and indirectly this being paid for through the higher indirect taxes,” said Fakir.
He said poor oversight and lack of accountability these costs soar and have to be borne by the public because of “ever-soaring public expenditure on all the wrong things.”
He said that the fuel increase has huge inflationary pressures resulting in a higher cost of living. “Luckily the intertest rate has not been changed because if that changes you will have both high inflation and high interest rates, what economists call stagflation.”
Major trade unions, like Cosatu, who have in the past been vociferous on the fuel price increases threatening to bring the country to a standstill, have been all but quiet. Some quarters have accused trade unions of being “complicit”.
Jenkins said that he approached such trade unions support the campaign but he has as yet not received “one positive response. We are in phase two of our protest action. We will have placard and legal demonstrations countrywide on 17 August celebrating Women’s Month at all premiers’ offices across the country. Our future plans may include refinery and harbour blocks as well as slowing traffic.
“I am not sure if the government is going to listen to anything. We are gaining momentum. People are tired of all political parties letting them down and who knows where #mustfall will be prior to the 2019 general elections,” said Jenkins.
He said that if no results are achieved through such protests, a more “radical approach” would be need for government to listen. “This government is oppressive and corrupt. If prices don’t come down, we gain momentum and we mobilise nationally.”
A comment from the office of the Minister of Energy, JT Radebe, is awaited.