/ 31 January 2023

South Africa must maintain and build new infrastructure

Infrastructure Programmes Hobbled By State's Inabilities
There are three key factors that will fast-track our infrastructure development and maintenance

Infrastructure problems in South Africa are mounting, with power cuts, water shortages and potholes are all too common. 

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering highlighted these difficulties in its 2022 state of infrastructure report that said South Africa is at risk of becoming a “failed state”.

The report assessed 32 different infrastructure segments and found only 15 to be “satisfactory” or above (graded C or higher), with the remaining segments falling into being “at risk of failing” (D) or “unfit for purpose” (E).

South Africa’s overall infrastructure rating was a D, indicating that infrastructure is not coping with normal demand and is poorly maintained.

Looking East

If South Africa is to improve its economic prospects, it will have to take more concerted efforts to better maintain its infrastructure as well as build new infrastructure.

A shining example of this is Indonesia, which in 2013 found itself in a precarious economic situation. Back then, Indonesia was listed among Morgan Stanley’s “fragile” five economies. South Africa was also part of this list, which also included Brazil, India and Turkey.

But ever since Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, became president of Indonesia in 2014, the country has turned a corner. Indonesia today is regarded as an economic success story with GDP growth of more than 5% in 2022. The country is expected to grow at a similar rate this year. 

A key facet of Widodo’s success has been to focus on improving infrastructure, particularly during his first term. 

During his tenure thus far, his government has constructed more than 2 000 toll roads, compared to about 700 in the previous 40 years. In addition, Indonesia today has 16 new airports, 18 new seaports, and 38 new dams. 

Turning things around

Infrastructure holds the key to better days in South Africa. The key question, though, is how we start to fast-track our infrastructure development and maintenance. 

There are three factors that can be considered: driving up gross fixed capital formation, establishing a centralised master plan and maintaining our existing infrastructure better and consistently, through planning and technology.

Gross fixed capital formation is an investment that is ploughed into the economy in plants, machinery, equipment and buildings.

In May 2023, South Africa’s presidency presented an inaugural draft Country Investment Strategy or CIS that reiterated a target of achieving 30% for the gross fixed capital formation to GDP ratio by the year 2030.

In 2021, this figure was just 15%, while the highest percentage in democratic South Africa was at 23.5% in 2008 .

More needs to be done to drive this figure up, but doing so requires a new impetus and focus. As part of his 2023 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa should provide an update on what specifically is being done to drive up gross fixed capital formation.

When it comes to improving its infrastructure rollout programme, the government should also consider developing a cohesive integrated master plan that connects all sectors of the economy and society, from health to infrastructure, telecommunications, education and more. 

If a new stretch of road is being developed in a town or village, it should be planned in such a way that it ties into other critical needs of the town or village’s residents. The road could, for example, connect to a new hospital, thereby providing greater health access. 

This plan should further seek to create greater cohesion among South Africa’s road, rail and port infrastructure to drive up efficiencies. 

As part of this plan, we should look at how privatisation and regulated third-party access with our rail network, for instance, can help us drive up exports while taking the strain off our roads. 

A third key measure involves taking a closer look at how we monitor and manage the state of our infrastructure. 

A solution to achieving a better level of monitoring is by using a technology called “digital twins”. A digital twin is a digital replica of physical assets such as buildings and roads. By sharing data between the virtual and real-world environment, governments and key stakeholders can pre-empt issues through proactive maintenance. 

In last year’s State of the Nation address, the president said the word “infrastructure” 19 times. This year, we’ll be listening carefully to what he says about how we can tackle our problems and emerge as a winning nation. 

Bongani Mthombeni-Möller is the director of Smart Mobility at Royal HaskoningDHV, an independent, international engineering and project management consultancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.