During the 2024 State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that South Africa’s infrastructure quality is improving. However, the reality is far bleaker.
The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) provides annual reports of civil infrastructure quality in South Africa’s roads, ports, railways and water systems.
Their 2022 report shows the damning reality of a water crisis and under-serviced transport systems.
Their findings, however, seem to be at odds with the President’s confident outlook delivered at this year’s SONA.
Ramaphosa gleamed over the subject of water, providing only a few general remarks on the matter.
“At the end of apartheid, only 6 out of 10 people had access to clean drinking water. Today, that figure has increased to nearly 9 out of 10 South Africans,” the President stated.
The President did not go into further detail or explain the ANC’s plan to address the country’s deteriorating water infrastructure. In reality, South Africa’s water systems are in dire straits and require urgent attention.
The 2022 SAICE Infrastructure Report Card stated that “supply reliability is decreasing” and pointed to a few damning statistics.
The report revealed that only 40% of water systems achieved microbiological compliance. Nearly 41% of all treated water was lost to leaks and illegal connections.
In addition, 34% of the country’s 1,186 water supply systems were close to failure.
In December 2023, a Department of Water and Sanitation report found that 67.6% of all wastewater treatment works are close to failure.
Another key item on the President’s agenda was transport infrastructure, including railways, roads and freight logistics systems.
Ramaphosa shed light on the opportunity provided by the recent Middle East conflict, pointing out that shipping traffic through the Suez Canal, which has been deterred by recent attacks, may be rerouted to South African ports.
However, the President also recognised the ongoing deterioration of logistics infrastructure across the nation.
“To deal with severe inefficiencies in our freight logistics system, we are taking action to improve our ports and rail network and restore them to world-class standards,” he said.
According to SAICE, the general freight network is in fair condition, with good performance for heavy haul lines. Still, its condition is declining, with volume and safety performance worsening.
Passenger lines, on the other hand, are in dire straits. According to the report, the disconnect may be due to pressure from big business on Transnet to efficiently transport iron ore, oil and gas, while the same cannot be said for passenger trains.
“We have set out a clear roadmap to stabilise the performance of Transnet and reform our logistics system,” said Ramaphosa.
However, the plans put in place by Transnet’s board require significant government spending at a time when the government is running a projected R330 billion deficit and has an already hefty debt burden.
SAICE’s report states that Transnet must move towards collaboration with private-sector investors. Such investors have already shown interest in projects like the Durban hub strategy and the Ngqura plan.
Regarding roads, the President stated that there has been a focus on improving road quality and repairing potholes led by SANRAL.
“In the past five years, SANRAL, which manages nearly 25,000 km of roads, has awarded more than 1,200 projects to the value of R120 billion,” he said.
Again, Ramaphosa’s words of encouragement do not fit the harsher reality displayed in expert analysis.
According to SAICE, the majority of road authorities do not perform regular assessments of road conditions, making most interventions reactive rather than preventative.
Instead of systematically maintaining road quality, government funding is spent on repairing potholes and diverting crises.
The lack of road maintenance is particularly drastic in the Eastern Cape, where potholes make for perilous routes. The situation can be so severe that it harms local businesses.
Mazeppa Bay Hotel, an iconic hotel in the Eastern Cape Wild Coast, was forced to close down in January as a result of impassable roads.
The closure not only means the loss of jobs for hotel employees, but also a significant blow for tourism in the area.
Another key concern Ramaphosa failed to touch on is the lack of infrastructure for most pedestrians and public transport users.
73% of South Africans depend heavily on public and non-motorised transport. A lack of pedestrian and public transport infrastructure is a key contributor to South Africa’s severe road fatality rates, with 40% of road fatalities being pedestrians.