South Africa’s roads are a complete mess – this is government’s big plan to fix them

 ·26 Oct 2022

South Africa has a massive road network spanning 750,000 kilometres across the country – but management and maintenance of the network are in chaos, with 62 different structures responsible for the vital asset.

The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure published the phase 2 documentation of its National Infrastructure Plan 2050 for public comment this past week, detailing the path that government will follow in realising its major infrastructure projects over the next 30 years.

According to the department, the 62 structures dealing with road maintenance in South Africa are spread across all three spheres of government: national toll and non-toll roads are managed by road agency Sanral; the nine provinces manage provincial roads, and municipal roads are managed by 44 district municipalities as transport authorities.

Reporting, tracking and monitoring of the road networks are inconsistent or simply not available, it said, and standards vary, with huge skills and spending deficiencies.

Notably, a significant portion of South Africa’s roads is gravel roads, isolated in rural areas with little to no oversight. More than 80% of provincial roads are gravel, the department said, adding that only 1% is re-gravelled every year.

“This means that a road will be re-gravelled once in 100 years,” it said.

On top of this, about 132,000km of roads in the country are unproclaimed – meaning they are not under the purview of any road authority and thus go unmaintained altogether.

As spending on roads between 2015 and 2021 increased, the quality and state of the roads have deteriorated, the department said, and on a municipal, provincial and national level, road authorities have severely dropped the ball.

The department highlighted the following main issues:

  • There is inadequate maintenance of roads in rural and urban areas;
  • Drainage and flood management systems are ineffective;
  • Rail company Prasa has collapsed, adding further burdens to the road network;
  • Sanral has been bludgeoned by the failed e-tolling system, casting doubt on private sector participation and user-pays funding;
  • Poor road safety, especially for pedestrians, persists as bridges aren’t built, and construction mafias, infrastructure theft and social unrest continue to impede work.

For the plan to 2050, the department envisages a different kind of road network that leverages the successful aspects of the current systems while ironing out the issues it currently faces.

Key to the plan is leaning into Sanral’s strengths and getting the road agency – which, until e-tolls and the failed Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), was a leader in private funding and road maintenance – to take over more of the country’s roads and putting it into its portfolio.

This would be part of a continued push to get more passengers and freight onto rail networks in the country as part of a wider, integrated transport plan.

A big caveat to the plans, however, comes in the form of resolving e-tolls.

“Sanral has a simple and effective business model, yet it has been hamstrung due to uncertainty in respect of user-pay toll roads, especially in the GFIP. This has been exacerbated over the past six years by the absence of a decision from the state on how to move forward,” it said.

“Taxpayers are cross-subsidising 90% of the users of the GFIP roads who are unwilling to pay for the services, resulting in reduced maintenance on non-toll roads, reputational damage to Sanral and lack of investor confidence.”

The department said that there has to be a resolution in respect of the government’s approach to ‘user-pays’ in roads, as this will help create long-term certainty about funding and help authorities remain ‘on-budget’ for road infrastructure.

From here, the country would be able to use Sanral’s clearing systems to support ‘token’ payment systems for travel across the country. It also said that Sanral should develop skills training programmes to plug the massive skills holes related to road infrastructure planning and management.

In the short term, the department expects the National Treasury and the Department of Transport to ensure 100% compliance with the user-pay principle, including how the GFIP will be dealt with. This announcement is expected to come with the mid-term budget on Wednesday (26 October).

Beyond this, however, the three-year strategy in the plan is to proclaim responsibility for unproclaimed roads, introduce consequence management for the maintenance of road infrastructure, and integrate road plans across all road assets.

By 2024, the Department of Transport will have a 10-year road master plan, including how the government plans to get at least 50 million tonnes of freight and 100 million passengers from road to rail and develop new funding models for the maintenance of roads.

Over the next year, the broader role of Sanral will be considered, it said, including assessing its capacity and capability to manage more of South Africa’s paved roads.

Read: Big changes coming for public transport in South Africa – including upgraded taxis and a national ticketing system

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