South Africa’s roads are collapsing

 ·18 Dec 2022

South Africa’s roads are falling apart, and recent heavy rains and flooding are accelerating what is already a rapid decline, according to experts.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, several infrastructure experts and road analysts say that South Africa’s roads are in crisis, with crumbling infrastructure now having a material impact on road users and the wider economy.

They highlighted a marked increase in the number of road-related repair projects that need to be undertaken each month – each one financed by taxpayers. The issue is exacerbated by recent heavy rainfall, further damaging extremely old road networks.

They said that roads in Johannesburg are particularly vulnerable, with some roads over 70 years old. The number of potholes needing to be filled has grown from 4,000 a month to 6,000.

Preliminary assessments from the Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA) pointed to R150 million needed to attend to roads damaged by recent rains in the city, which saw entire sections of high-traffic routes break down or collapse.

According to the Road Freight Association, the problem is nationwide and impacts businesses and consumers. Freight companies are getting lower mileage out of their tyres due to the state of the roads, and poor conditions affect delivery times, supply, and the pricing of goods.

Civil group Outa said the crumbling roads and numerous potholes damage vehicles, adding to maintenance, repair and insurance costs.

Deteriorating fast

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) published its 2022 Infrastructure Report Card in November, painting a bleak picture of the state of roads, among other infrastructure in the country.

While it graded the country’s National roads quite highly – a B+ or suitable for the country’s needs – this is largely due to these roads being under the purview of the national roads agency Sanral, which has a comprehensive road maintenance regimen.

The real issue is the secondary and tertiary road networks in the country, which are deteriorating rapidly, compromising road safety and freight, the group said. Most provincial roads are sub-standard, and the situation is deteriorating fast.

“Most provincial and local road authorities do not regularly undertake or publish assessments of the condition of their road networks, and repairs are therefore typically reactive, e.g. fixing potholes rather than conducting regular preventative maintenance,” SAICE said.

“Moreover, maintenance and improvements are generally underfunded, and the future negative consequences of this trend on the longevity of roadways is rarely assessed.”

The group said that, except for the Western Cape, the condition of most paved provincial roads is substandard.

“There is a risk of further deterioration due to increased vehicle overloading, poor maintenance and the steady reduction of skilled personnel in roads departments. In major urban areas, the condition of paved roads has also continued to deteriorate.”

Road to recovery

According to the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure’s National Infrastructure Plan 2050 – published for public comment in October – the country’s road networks are a complete mess, with the national and provincial governments unable to effectively manage and administer them.

The department said that the 62 structures dealing with road maintenance in South Africa are spread across all three spheres of government, and reporting, tracking and monitoring of the road networks are inconsistent or simply unavailable, with standards varying, with huge skills and spending deficiencies.

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;
  • 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 proposed plan until 2050, the department wants to lean into Sanral’s maintenance strengths and get the road agency to take over more of the country’s roads and put them into its portfolio.

At the same time, the government wants to push to get more passengers and freight onto rail networks in the country as part of a wider, integrated transport plan to take pressure off the road network.

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

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