Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has warned that South Africa could soon face a disaster on par with Eskom’s electricity crisis as its road infrastructure continues to deteriorate.
Answering questions in a parliamentary committee meeting on Tuesday (15 February), Mbalula said that important money required for road maintenance was being used to service debt that had been built up by the failed e-toll project.
“I am sitting here with roads that are not going to be maintained for the next 10 years. The second phase of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project has come to an abrupt standstill and there is going to be (serious) congestion in the next five to ten years, starting in Gauteng.
“It is going to be the biggest disaster you have ever seen, with roads not being fixed and maintained, because we do not have the money to do it.”
Mbalula was heavily critical of former finance minister Tito Mboweni who he said had failed to offer a solution to the controversial e-toll scheme, which contributed to the growing debt problems. “It will have dire consequences for this country – the same as we have dire problems of electricity.”
Similar to Eskom’s issues, these are problems that were identified more than 10 years ago by the government and have not been sufficiently addressed, Mbalula said.
The minister said that several provincial authorities had also misused maintenance funds, with it becoming a common occurrence to pay service providers millions of rands for roads that do not exist.
He pointed to specific instances in the Eastern Cape where the government provided funds for roads to be built that disappeared into thin air, requiring the South African National Road Agency (Sanral) to take over the road from the province.
A June 2021 report by business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found that more than half (54%) of the country’s unpaved road network is in poor to very poor condition, while about a third (30%) of the paved network is in poor to very poor condition.
South Africa’s road network is the largest and longest interconnected road network in sub-Saharan Africa covering approximately 750,811km of roads.
While the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is responsible for all major highways, regional departments oversee provincial as well as regional routes while local municipalities oversee smaller urban roads that connect national and regional roads to the major network.
“The provincial road network condition has been on a steady decline since the early 90s due to several reasons, including curtailed funding allocations to roads and the shrinking project output by the public sector,” Frost & Sullivan said.
On Tuesday (15 February), Sanral warned of possible road closures due to a new sinkhole that formed along the R21 near Olifantsfontein.
“Two sinkholes formed on Monday afternoon just before 16h00 along the R21 northbound carriageway towards Pretoria, just after the Olifantsfontein interchange at R21 section,” said Louw Kannemeyer, Sanral’s Engineering Executive.
“One sinkhole developed just outside our road reserve fence boundary, and the second one immediately adjacent to the edge of the R21, penetrating about two meters underneath the road up to the slow lane and five to six meters deep currently,” said Kannemeyer.
Cracks also formed in the road surface in the outer two slow lanes, which called for the immediate closure of the outer two lanes of the road.
“Preliminary assessments have been performed by Sanral engineers, and we are currently in process with the emergency appointment of the required geotechnical engineering specialists to assist with the specialist investigations required,” said Kannemeyer.
Sanral closed a portion of the N1 due to a sinkhole near the Flying Saucer interchange in Centurion earlier in February following the emergence of a sinkhole in the area.