Return of the robber barons
by Herman Labuschagne

Eden Express article, 30 June 2013


When I was 16 years old I stood beside the Rhine River in Germany while a friend told me about the time when robber barons ruled the waterways. For a thousand years they greedily preyed on river traffic from their castles which were stretched along the river every five kilometres or so. Each passing vessel had to pay a tax to the local robber baron, or face the consequences. And woe indeed, to the unfortunate merchant who should run out of money along the way. Those who could not pay toll were often imprisoned. Or even worse, they might be thrown into a steel cage which would be hung from the tower ramparts. There they were left to perish from cold and hunger, or had to wait until some sympathetic soul came to redeem their lives by paying their toll for them.


I remember standing in front of Pfalzgrafenstein castle one morning, thinking: “How proud I am to be a South African! How fortunate that we do not have toll roads or toll ways. How blessed we are in our modern world that does not suffer from robber castles and what a good thing it is that the robber barons never found their way across the oceans…” But that was 1988 and all of that was soon to change. First there was toll at the Huguenot tunnel because it had been expensive to build. Then toll on the N1 because South Africa was in trouble and roads had to be maintained. Then toll on other roads because the economy was in tatters. And now e-toll simply because they can. Who, you ask? The robber barons, of course. They found us again. It took 350 years, but they found us again. They found us because we allowed ourselves to be found.

Pfalzgrafenstein robber baron castle in the Rhine River, at the age of 16.