Marking South Africa’s decline – OPINION | Policyweb
Mark the decline of South Africa
William Saunderson-Meyer |
November 18, 2022
William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the SAICE bulletin on the state of the country’s infrastructure
South Africa is in the first convulsions of an economic double whammy.
Just when the collapse of critical infrastructure – power, water, sewage, roads and railways – appears to be approaching a tipping point, the skills and expertise needed to salvage the situation have become extremely scarce. The country is in the throes of a brain drain that rivals and may even exceed the exodus that accompanied the political upheavals of the 1960s and mid-1980s.
The South African Institute of Civil Engineers (SAICE) Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) 2022, released this week, is a chilling warning that the collapse of public infrastructure has reached such a stage that unless be dealt with immediately, we risk becoming a failed state.
About half of South Africa’s public infrastructure has collapsed or is on the verge of collapse. However, as the country’s engineering capacity has eroded at a staggering rate over the past decade, the expertise needed to save the day is simply no longer available.
Engineers, with their innate belief that what can be designed can be built, are innate optimists. On the contrary, SAICE underestimates the seriousness of the situation.
The bulletin covers 32 infrastructure sub-sectors. There is only one A (an A is defined as world class; in excellent condition and well maintained, with the ability to withstand the pressure of unusual events), the Gautrain network.
There are seven B’s (perfect for the future; in good condition and properly maintained). They are attributed to the national road network, the nine main airports belonging to the airports corporation, the nine commercial ports of Transnet, the nine proclaimed fishing ports of the country, the national network of oil and gas pipelines, the transmission network of ‘Eskom and information and communication technologies in South Africa. Infrastructure.
The averaging effect of the CRI scoring method puts a bit of shine on the image that hides potentially crippling flaws. It’s easy to forget that infrastructure systems are interdependent, and the failure of a critical component in one can trigger a cascade of failures elsewhere.
For example, failures of a few key components of Eskom’s production infrastructure over the past year have left South Africa, experts warn, dangerously close to a total national blackout that would be economically crippling and could last for weeks. And repeated Eskom load shedding has also, despite Gauteng’s dams reaching record capacity, meant that Johannesburg has been unable to pump enough water to replenish urban reservoirs, depriving large swaths of the city of water for weeks.
Given these realities, SAICE flatters Eskom to give its production infrastructure a D- (a D stands for at risk of failure; not meeting normal demand and poorly maintained, which seriously annoys the public), rather than an E (unfit for use; broken down or on the verge of failure, exposing the public to health and safety risks).
Similarly, Eskom’s local distribution also gets a D. This performance is measured by the number of “disruption events and their duration”, and SAICE claims that “both indicators have remained stable over the past decade”. .
The explanation for this implausibility lies in the following sentence of the bulletin: “Given the paucity of data on municipal distribution networks, they have been excluded from the ranking.” Given that most South Africans get their electricity through municipal grids, this is a huge and misleading gap in the report.
SAICE uses the same explanation, lack of data, as a health infrastructure assessment problem, where hospitals get a D+ and clinics a D. Its rationale is that “in response to Covid-19, a significant amount of funds have (sic) been diverted to emergency infrastructure at the national level.However, provinces “do not place sufficient emphasis on maintenance…Inadequate budgets, shortages of trained personnel and administrative problems often result in by a poor state of infrastructure.
In education, public schools get a D, universities a C+ (C means satisfactory for now, though stressed at peak times), and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) colleges ) a D+. The report notes that “theft, malicious property damage and arson remain significant threats.”
As with electrical infrastructure, the IRC’s assessment of water supply systems underestimates the potential for disaster.
The supply from large cities is rated C+. This is surprisingly positive, given that the IRC admits that “in some urban areas, water supply systems have operated at full capacity and will not be able to meet growing demand unless proactive measures are taken. not be taken…”
Supply in “all other areas” is D-, although the Department of Water and Sanitation rates 34% of nearly 1,200 water supply systems as being at “high risk of failure to critical”. Regarding the quality of what is supplied intermittently, only 40% of systems achieved microbiological compliance and only 23% chemical compliance.
This is the fifth CRI since 2006 and it delivers the lowest overall rating to date, a D. “Generally speaking, it is evident that, with the exception of power generation, economic infrastructure remains in a satisfactory state. However, the bulletin continues, “the continued deterioration of social infrastructure paints a picture appalling of the difficult situation that ordinary people face in accessing basic water, sanitation, health, education, public transport and electricity services”.
The IRC then turns to assessing the human resources needed to repair these emerging disasters. While he hails the encouraging “true South African success story” of the “dramatic increase” in the number of black and female technicians and technologists, this has been accompanied by the “displacement” of their older, white engineering counterparts. This has resulted in a “debilitating shortage of engineering skills” and a critical lack of mentorship.
Also in this regard, SAICE has done its best to be positive. He hailed as “encouraging” the government’s “moves to professionalise the civil service and focus on skills rather than political leanings”. But he also warned that many needed engineers and skills are already gone.
“It is important to note that developed economies are targeting infrastructure development as a catalyst for growth in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. These countries need to supplement their technical human resources to cope with this surge and South Africans, who are generally well trained and hardworking, are becoming attractive targets for recruitment.
SAICE’s resolutely optimistic tone would be significantly dampened had the BRI been bold enough to tackle the most critical factor influencing a future infrastructure collapse: the African National Congress government. The government must, among other things, relax racial quotas in employment, halt the deployment of party cadres and tackle corruption, as well as arrest criminal gangs who now extort a bribe at every major infrastructural development. .
The will and ability of the ANC government to deal with these problems that hamper investment in infrastructure is what all depends on. The signals are not encouraging.
This week, in his weekly missive to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote that “there should be no mistake or misunderstanding” that the government remained “fully committed” to transformation and empowerment. B-BBEE is “not threatened and is not being reconsidered”. Preferential procurement, “one of the most transformative pieces of legislation in democratic South Africa”, will remain in place.
How would SAICE rate this response on its report card, one wonders? Although his report card doesn’t have an F (for failed; screwed up beyond salvage), it’s the symbol that immediately comes to mind.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye
The full SAICE IRC can be viewed here.