Final Word

E-tolling and lessons from elephants


The e-tolling of Gauteng’s upgraded urban road network has turned into an unholy mess, but for this columnist, if not for the SANRAL road agency and others involved, there was something to learn from the whole sorry episode.

There is a formidable array of forces lined up against the whole e-toll scheme, from the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) – though obviously they did not think things through, up to the acronym they will spawn when deciding on that name – to the ANC of Gauteng.

It now seems more than likely that the e-tolling system will be scrapped in the not too distant future. But the infrastructure to collect the tolls – not the roads – is already in place at a capital cost of close to R1.5 bn.

This infrastructure is set to become one massive ‘white elephant’, and therein lie the lessons that I learned.

The first lesson is that not all the very descriptive expressions we have in English come from the days of antiquity and originated with the Romans or the Greeks with their treasure trove of myths. Or even, closer to modern times, come from the French.

The story of the white elephant, unlike the e-toll-system, is associated with holiness and starts many millenniums ago. It is a tradition that derives from the stories associated with the birth of Buddha. His mother was said to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower as symbol of wisdom and purity on the eve of his birth.

White elephants are also linked to both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The symbol of the Sakka deity, ruler of heaven of Tavatimsa, is a three-headed white elephant named Airavata.

While the elephant was the old workhorse, so to speak, in the Hindu valley as far back as 4 000 years ago, and used for transport and even waging war, the white elephant was regarded as sacred and protected by law from working.

Albino elephants born in nature, and actually usually more reddish-brown or pink than white, belonged to the monarch of the day in Southeast Asia’s Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

It was to him both a blessing, indicating his wealth, status and a sign that he reigned with justice and power. But it was also a burden to maintain without being able to put them to any work.

Nevertheless, they did offer the monarch the opportunity to dish out what could be called sweet revenge. Today’s term ‘white elephant’, with its negative connotation of “expensive uselessness”, is said to derive from the custom of the kings of Siam, (today’s Thailand) to present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin them by the cost of its maintenance.

While the gift was a blessing because the elephant was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, it was expensive to maintain, could not be given away nor put to any practical use.

‘White elephant’ as an idiomatic expression made its first recorded appearance in English in 1851 and was popularised by American showman, businessman, bit politician and circus owner Phineas Taylor Barnum’s experience with an elephant named Toung Taloung.

He billed it as the "Sacred White Elephant of Burma" and went to great lengths and expense to secure the elephant from the King of Siam. When he finally set eyes on his "white elephant" it was actually dirty grey in colour with a few pink spots.

He must have felt then a bit like the guys at SANRAL are feeling today.

by Piet Coetzer

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