Changes could smooth the way
October is South Africa's National Transport Month, a government-led initiative and public awareness campaign whic this year celebrates 20 years of "delivering efficient, reliable and safe transport systems", according to the department of transport.
The campaign kicked off on Tuesday at the Bus Rapid Transit System station in Hatfield, Pretoria.
The public and private sectors both recognise the paramount importance of efficient and effective commercial and public transport systems if South Africa is to improve its international competitiveness and improve the lives of its citizens. But in both areas the country faces numerous historical and current challenges.
The apartheid legacy
The country's transport system represents an ongoing attempt to overcome the spatial legacies of the apartheid era's policies of "separate development" and forced removals of black people to townships, usually far from their places of work.
Today, working class South African commuters pay more than commuters in other comparable emerging economies for transport costs to and from their places of work.
Historically, the country's commercial transport infrastructure was built to facilitate white-owned capital interests, especially the mining industry, and was accompanied by a well-developed road network that focused on linking major cities and commodity freight routes together.
Since the major townships and peri-urban ghettoes that housed the black population under apartheid lay largely outside these transportation networks, private transport companies filled the gap, especially buses and more recently the taxi industry.
These modes of public transport still move the majority of South Africa's commuters.
Public transport has served as a major arena for the struggle against apartheid.
One such struggle was the famous bus boycott against fare increases in the 1950s in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, which ran under the slogan "azikhwelwa" (we shall not ride).
This boycott marked the first concerted campaign by the black population against the white Nationalist government which took power in 1948.
The current government faces the challenge of providing internationally competitive transport infrastructure and systems, and overcoming the spatial legacy of apartheid.
With growth prospects in the developed world in the post-recession environment far-off, developing markets have become flavour of the month.
For big business, political boundaries are less of an issue than they are for governments.
Given the presence of sophisticated business infrastructure and management capability in Africa's largest economy, South Africa still rates poorly when it comes to the ease of doing business here.
But much of the optimism for growth that foreign investors have is based on the ease with which products and services can be moved into, out of and within the country.
This kind of mobility goes far beyond the physical rail lines and highways between countries; it also requires cost-effective and efficient regulatory and logistics environments.
One of the major risks to South Africa's economic growth is the cost of logistics and transportation.
Logistics costs as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in competitive countries should be between 8% and 10%.
In South Africa, however, logistics costs as a percentage of total GDP rose by 0.7% to 12.6% in 2011 and are estimated to have risen to 12.8% in 2012, by the CSIR's State of Logistics report for 2013.
These absolute measures hide a more disturbing statistic when transport costs are considered as part of the country's total logistics costs — currently pinned by the CSIR as 61%, the highest it has been in the past nine years and far higher than the global average.
While transport costs are always volatile because they are linked to the price of fuel, South Africa is also massively overdependent on road transport in its freight sector.
The contrast between the state of South Africa's primary road network, managed and maintained by the South African National Road Agency Limited (Sanral), and its secondary network, provincial road networks managed and maintained by provincial authorities, is blatant.
Sanral has been consistently pilloried for introducing the highly unpopular e-tolling system, through which, it insists, it will finance continued maintenance of the country's major roads.
The CSIR estimates that if the 2011 road freight volumes, the most recent it was able to reliably track, on the 22 major national freight corridors were transported on provincial roads instead of the primary road network, there would have been an increase of R625-million in fuel, tyre and maintenance and repair costs impacting operators directly.
While Sanral has done a good job of maintaining the primary road network, the condition of provincial road networks has deteriorated markedly.
The contribution of poor road conditions to fatal accidents shows that the effects of bad roads stretch further than increased vehicle operating costs.
Road-related factors contribute to 5% to 15% of fatal road accidents, of which 28% can be attributed to poor road surface conditions.
The total cost of fatal accidents caused by poor road conditions in 2010/2011 is estimated by the CSIR at between R207-million and R621-million.
The recently appointed minister of transport, Dipuo Peters, has made road accidents a priority in her first public pronouncement.
"Research outcomes indicate that at least R306-billion is lost to the South African economy annually as a result of road crashes, fatal and otherwise," she said.
This cost includes loss of manpower and skills due to fatalities and injuries, emergency medical services, post-crash services, such as road repairs and clean-up operations, compensation paid out by our agency, the Road Accident Fund and others.
In other transport modes beyond the dominant one of road transport, South Africa appears to be making some progress.
Improved port infrastructure and operational performance, the growth of the Airports Company South Africa — which has recently expanded into Brazil and India — and the growth and relative success of Transnet's freight rail operations in transferring some freight movement away from the congested roads system, point to some positives.
Despite the continuing challenges faced by ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, the government's investment in a range of strategic infrastructure projects bodes well for the increased efficiency and effectiveness of the country's transport systems.
Many of these projects involve the expansion of freight, transport and logistics capacity around the country, such as the Harrismith and Heidelberg freight hubs and the Gauteng to KwaZulu-Natal logistics corridor.
In tandem with the public sector commitment to improving the public transport system, for example through expanding and linking the bus rapid transit system and the Gautrain, we can at least place a cautiously positive spin on the sector — though improvements may not be rapid enough to be of immediate economic benefit.
This article forms part of a supplement made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team.