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No place for politics in bricks and mortar

- Charlotte Mathews

South Africa’s infrastructure seems to be falling apart at the seams. What needs to be done to save the country from further deterioration?

Mining and construction © Curiosity

Intermittent electricity and water supply, potholes in the roads, lengthy waits at hospitals, sewage in rivers, weeds along railway tracks … there’s no need to tell the South African government that infrastructure is badly in need of renewal. High-level plans were drawn up years ago, and subsequently refined. But some practical steps could be taken immediately to kickstart action.

The big picture 

The National Planning Commission, which is responsible for implementing South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, has identified various priorities in key infrastructure sectors.

In energy, it is to explore gas, diversify the energy mix and suppliers, improve municipal electricity distribution, address electricity pricing and consider ‘the timing and/or desirability of’ new nuclear energy and a petrol refinery. 

In water, it is to establish a National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency, reduce demand in urban areas by at least 15%, better manage agricultural demand and investigate water use and desalination.

In transport, the priorities are to devise a workable urban transit solution, strengthen freight corridors, provide long-distance commuter transport options, and improve rural mobility. 

In ICT, the priorities are to drive public and private investment in networks, establish a common carrier network and implement open access policies to encourage the sharing of parts of the fibre network. 

Since Covid-19 devastated the economy, government has put another plan in place, the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP), which is also guided by the NDP, but has a particular focus on creating jobs, mainly through a major infrastructure programme.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his State of the Nation address in February, said that the current project pipeline for the ERRP was R340 billion, for network industries such as energy, water, transport and telecommunications, and work was underway to finalise project finance.


Professor Rod Crompton, Director of the Energy Leadership Centre at Wits Business School, says that the biggest problem facing power generation is Eskom’s debt of about R488 billion that it is unable to service, of which about R350 billion is guaranteed by government. “Either taxpayers or electricity customers, or a combination, will have to pay Eskom’s debt,” he says. 

The second problem facing SA’s power sector is frequent loadshedding, which could be addressed by accelerating delayed projects under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme (REIPPP) and allowing more small-scale power generation. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy recently made announcements to partially do this.

“The most immediate practical step would be for the policy makers to allow market forces to help solve the electricity crisis,” Crompton says.


Mike Muller, Adjunct Professor in the Wits School of Governance, says problems in the past have highlighted the need to have unified, disciplined and accountable management to develop major water infrastructure and ensure that it is properly funded.

Although the country’s rainfall has always been variable and unpredictable, reliable supplies could be provided to urban and industrial water users – and irrigation farmers – if storage and transmission infrastructure is built with enough capacity to cope with regular dry periods and is properly managed.

The recently-proposed National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency is responsible for building new infrastructure and managing the dams and transmission currently being operated by the Department of Water and Sanitation, as well as specialist services like acid mine water treatment. But it is not able to address issues at the municipal level, other than as an adviser.

Muller emphasises that the underlying problems in local water supply and sanitation services for domestic and commercial purposes in different parts of the country were often not the same.

“There’s no single prescription. Each municipality must understand and address its own particular circumstances. The critical challenge is usually not to build new infrastructure but to build the capacity to operate and maintain what they have and plan its systematic upgrading as and when needed.”


Covid-19 underlined the big digital divide in SA, with its ‘digital haves’ and ‘digital have-nots’, particularly the gap between urban and rural access, says Professor Barry Dwolatzky of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JSCE) at Wits University.

He says once connectivity is addressed, it will have massive economic benefits for the country and will solve other issues, like the shortage of IT skills and reluctance to adopt new technology. Connectivity roll-out should be made a top infrastructure priority.

There is an excellent precedent for this. In the 1990s Eskom led a massive household electrification programme (in which Wits University was involved) which connected about 1 000 households a day to the grid, and changed the country. Data connectivity is far easier to do, since wireless can be used for the ‘last mile’.

“Wits has a lot of capacity to support such a programme, both in technical and economic advice,” Dwolatzky says.

But it cannot be left to the private sector, he adds. Mobile networks are driven by profit, not development. They make a lot more money from rolling out 5G to Clifton than bringing low-cost broadband to Lusikisiki, which is where government (specifically the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies) needs to step in.

“Connectivity supports education and government services and benefits citizens in many ways – it should be a no-brainer,” he adds.


Dr Ron Watermeyer, Visiting Adjunct Professor at the School of Construction Economics and Management at Wits University, says government needs to fundamentally change the procurement system.

SA has two examples of successful project delivery: the REIPPP, and the completion of SIPs 14. This was number 14 in a series of 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) which have been identified as key drivers of economic growth and social development in the country. SIPs 14 was managed by Wits University and focused on developing higher education infrastructure. The first intake of new students took place within 28 months of the political decision being made to provide two new universities. What differentiated those projects was the quality of procurement and client delivery management.

Delivering a successful infrastructure project (that fulfils its purpose and remains within time and budget constraints), whether in transport or any other sector, depends on taking a strategic, rather than administrative approach to procurement, Watermeyer says. 

Administrative procurement is usually the task of the finance department and is more appropriate for obtaining general goods and services for internal consumption. Strategic procurement is needed when dealing with the specific environment of the construction industry, where every project involves different combinations of funders, clients, site conditions, materials, technologies and risks.

The law and policy of public procurement needs to be revised, he says. It is over-complex, fragmented and inconsistent, with an emphasis on box-ticking, which makes it vulnerable to fraud. The regulatory framework for public-private partnerships also needs review, since it has attracted unacceptably low levels of private sector investment in public infrastructure.

“Capacity building needs to begin with accounting officers in all organs of state, who must put in place an effective system for infrastructure management and delivery,” says Watermeyer. 


The failure of infrastructure delivery in health is illustrated by two recent examples, says Professor Alex van den Heever, Adjunct Professor in the Wits School of Governance.

The first is the fire in the Gauteng Health Department’s building a few years ago, in which firemen were trapped and died, because the building was unsafe. The budget for maintenance of that building was under the control of the Department of Infrastructure Development, not the Department of Health, so it had not been spent appropriately.

The second example is that despite R1 billion having been spent to upgrade the Department of Health’s Civitas building in Pretoria, it had to move out 10 years later because the building was decreed unsafe and unhealthy.

The problem, at the national, provincial and municipal level, is twofold, Van den Heever says: incompetent project administration and corruption.

“Project planning needs to move away from short-term thinking, which results in standalone projects, to longer-term, integrated planning,” says Van den Heever. “There has to be a centralised process at each level of government, involving a mixture of skills, to identify infrastructure needs and take accountability for projects through to completion.” 

The immediate practical step to ensuring better infrastructure project delivery would be to de-politicise government bureaucracy, says Van den Heever. “Ministers should have no say over civil service appointments, which should be made on the basis of qualifications and competence.”

More information

  • Charlotte Mathews is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.