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Deracialise standards to build and renew for social upliftment

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Picture: Neil Baynes/African News Agency/Taken on February 17, 2010 – Road works on the N1 Roodepoort Highway, Gauteng. While municipalities do need more to spend on infrastructure development and maintenance, more can be done more efficiently with the existing resources, the writers say. Should we continue to re-tar roads that were built under apartheid to assist the few, but which have no really useful social or economic life for a democratic South Africa, the writers ask.

By Sue Bannister and Michael Sutcliffe

Why is it that every time municipal infrastructure fails in South Africa, we behave as if it does not happen elsewhere and that nothing is being done to build new, upgrade old and maintain existing infrastructure? Unfortunately, there is a tendency in South Africa to act as if nothing is being done when, in fact, much is being done. There is also much more that could be done with existing resources and even much more that could be built if we had additional resources.

Do we ever stop to think about other contexts, not in order to make excuses, but to realise that across the world, the more we build, the more we must maintain, and there are never enough resources to do so. For example, the scale of the funds required to maintain infrastructure in the largest economy of the world is staggering. In 2018, some $23 billion was being spent to maintain the national roads (Interstate system), yet studies showed that a minimum of $57bn was required per annum just to maintain the roads, and for decades, the backlog of maintenance and renewal has amounted to more than $200bn just for the US’s national roads system.

In South Africa, it is also not just about funding shortfalls but about the apartheid legacy we have, where black South Africans were stripped of their land and relocated to racially segregated developments far outside the city. Since 1994, a massive amount has been done to address that legacy, but much more remains to be done.

For example, of the 18 million or so dwellings in which people reside, about 13.8 million are formal structures. The remaining 4.2 million dwellings are primarily informal dwellings, backyard shacks and the like, and over four million African South Africans live in these dwellings. The distribution of who resides in formal shacks, either standing alone or in backyards, is uneven, with 53 percent of these informal dwellings being in Gauteng, 13 percent in Western Cape, and 10 percent in KwaZulu-Natal.

Each night, this means that 2.1million households are going to sleep in cramped quarters in these three provinces. And these households have the worst access to other basic services: water, electricity, sanitation and waste removal.

But on the other side of the coin, well over 4.5 million housing opportunities have been delivered to South Africans since 1994, a feat unmatched by most of the world. We must continue this path of providing decent housing for our people, so building new infrastructure is a critical part of our programme of infrastructure delivery.

Most people do not know that municipalities deliver the highest proportion of basic network services infrastructure, higher than both national and provincial government (excluding entities that focus primarily on economic infrastructure). The most recent audited figures for municipalities indicate that:

  • Some R60bn is spent a year at a municipal level on new assets, made up of 25 percent for water and sanitation, 23 percent for roads, 4 percent for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure.
  • At least another R58bn is spent each year on renewing existing assets, made up of 39 percent on machinery and equipment, 30 percent for water and sanitation, 16 percent for roads, 20 percent for land, 12 percent for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure.
  • At least a further R21bn is spent on upgrading existing assets, made up of 29 percent for water and sanitation, 30 percent for roads, 12 percent for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure.

The distribution of capital expenditure on new, renewing or upgrading infrastructure is because each asset class has a different life span. For example, when we build municipal infrastructure, we assign to each class an asset life (in years). These range significantly. For example, with engineering infrastructure, roads and motorways having a useful life of 20-80 years, major substations generally between 30-50 years, whereas fencing may only have a life of 20 years.

Overall, each year municipalities spend at least R139bn in these three areas to enhance, increase or replace assets. It is unfair to argue then that little is being done on the renewal or maintenance of our infrastructure. However, when you add in the unpredictability of emergencies, floods, disasters and the like, you realise these also require that additional and usually unbudgeted new and/or old infrastructure has to be replaced.

But there is no doubt that much more can be done with available resources. In eThekwini, we have estimated that over the past 10 years, some R35bn of capital expenditure remained unspent out of the adjustment budgets. When coupled with the fact that at least another 33 municipalities “returned” monies to the National Treasury because of underspending, you know the problem is severe. And in the case of the Municipal Infrastructure Grant, to have had some R27bn unspent in the smaller municipalities over the past 15 years cannot be excused. At the same time, the Municipal Grant Infrastructure funds alone have contributed over R180bn of infrastructure actually developed in that same period.

The challenge in questions being raised about the sustainability of municipal infrastructure is no different from asking how long is a piece of string? Rather, we should engage in a more serious conversation about which infrastructure should be built, renewed or upgraded.

Should we continue to re-tar roads which were built under apartheid to assist the few, but which have no really useful social or economic life for a democratic South Africa? Should we not be massifying our campaigns to densify our municipal economic cores, thereby reducing the time and cost it takes for working people and job seekers to access job opportunities? Don’t we need to do much more to de-racialise our standards and infrastructure so that we build, rebuild and renew what is needed for our country?

Sue Bannister and Michael Sutcliffe are Directors at City Insight