What should we be doing in Building and Maintaining our Infrastructure

Oct 1, 2023

What should we be doing in building and maintaining our infrastructure?

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 in South Africa. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in South Africa to act as if nothing is being done, when in fact much is being done, but there is always much more which could be done with existing resources and even much more which 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. A report last year in the Guardian newspaper, said that “At least 12 people have died in domestic gas explosions in the past five years in Great Britain and 178 more have been injured amid concern at the risk posed by corroding service pipes, some laid at the time of the second world war”.

And according to statistics from the United States Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), from 2002 to 2021, there were 680 serious natural gas pipeline explosions, resulting in 260 deaths. This was due to old, rusty gas lines or ones that are damaged that run from the street into homes, defective gas-operated equipment, improper use of gas furnaces, stoves or other gas appliances and gas appliances that have been poorly or incorrectly installed.

And by way of example, the scale of the funds required in maintaining infrastructure in the largest economy of the world is staggering. In 2018 some US$23 was being spent to maintain the national roads (Interstate system), yet studies showed that a minimum of US$57 billion was required per annum just to maintain the roads and for decades the backlog of maintenance and renewal has amounted to over US$200 billion just for the USA’s national roads system!

In South Africa, it is also not just about funding shortfalls, but about reminding ourselves of the terrible apartheid legacy we have where black South Africans were stripped of their land and relocated to racially segregated developments far outside the city, where homeownership was practically impossible. Between 1960 and 1980, 3.5 million people were forcibly removed by police officers from city centres and prime properties to rural townships.

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 in these dwellings over 4 million African South Africans live.

The distribution of who resides in formal shacks either standing alone or in backyards is uneven, with 53% of all of these informal dwellings being in Gauteng, 13% in Western Cape and 10% in KwaZulu-Natal. Each night, this means that 2,1 million households are going to sleep in such 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 having been delivered to South Africans since 1994, a feat unmatched by most of the world.

Our reality, though, is that 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 which focus primarily on economic infrastructure).

The most recent audited figures for municipalities indicate that:

• some R60 billion is spent per year at a municipal level on new assets, made up of 25% for water and sanitation, 23% for roads, 4% for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure, etc.
• at least another R58 billion is spent each year on renewing existing assets made up of 39% on machinery and equipment, 30% for water and sanitation, 16% for roads, 20% for land, 12% for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure, etc.
• At least a further R21 billion on the upgrading of existing assets made up of 29% for water and sanitation, 30% for roads, 12% for electricity and the rest on community infrastructure, etc.

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 our 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, then each year municipalities spend at least R139 billion in these three areas, and this is money spent to enhance, increase or replace assets in municipalities, which assets currently stand at around R700 billion.

It certainly is unfair to argue then, that very little is being done on the renewal or maintenance of our infrastructure.

However, when you add in the unpredictability of serious emergencies, floods, disasters and the like, you realise that these also require additional and usually unbudgeted new and/or old infrastructure having to be immediately replaced.

But there is no doubt that much more can be done with available resources. In our own city of eThekwini we have estimated that over the past ten years a total of some R35 billion of capital expenditure remained unspent out of the adjustment budgets.

When coupled with the fact that at least another 33 municipalities “returned” monies to National Treasury because of underspending, you know the problem is severe.

And in the case of the Municipal Infrastructure Grant, to have had some R27 billion unspent in the smaller municipalities over the past 15 years cannot be excused. But at the same time, the MIG funds alone have contributed over R180 billion 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 far more serious conversation around 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 work seekers to access job opportunities?

In simpler terms, don’t we need to do much more to deracialise our standards and infrastructure so that we build, rebuild and renew what is really needed for our new democratic country?