Scoring South Africa’s decline

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on SAICE's report card on the state of the country's infrastructure


South Africa is in the opening convulsions of an economic double whammy. 

At the same moment that collapse of critical infrastructure — electricity, water, sewage, roads and railways — appears to be approaching a tipping point, the skills and expertise required to salvage the situation have become critically 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 2022 Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) of the SA Institute of Civil Engineers (SAICE), released this week, is a chilling warning that the collapse of public infrastructure has reached the stage that, unless addressed immediately, we face becoming a failed state. 

Around half of South Africa’s public infrastructure has collapsed or is close to doing so. However, because the country’s engineering capacity has been eroded at a shocking rate over the last decade, the expertise required to rescue the situation is simply no longer available.

Engineers, with their innate belief that what can be conceived can be built, are innate optimists. If anything, SAICE is understating the gravity of the situation. 

The report card covers 32 sub-sectors of infrastructure. There is only one A (an A is defined as world-class; in excellent condition and well maintained, with the capacity to endure pressure from unusual events), the Gautrain network. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

There are seven Bs (fit for the future; in good condition and properly maintained). They are awarded to the national road network, the nine major airports owned by the Airports Company, Transnet's nine commercial ports, the country’s nine proclaimed fishing harbours, the national oil and gas pipeline network, Eskom’s transmission network, and South Africa’s information and communication technology infrastructure.

The averaging effect of the IRC’s scoring method puts something of a gloss on the picture that hides potentially paralysing flaws. It is easy to forget that infrastructural systems are interrelated and that the failure of a critical component in one can trigger a cascade of failures elsewhere. 

For example, failures in a few key components of Eskom’s generating 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 Eskom’s repeated load-shedding has also, despite Gauteng dams being at record capacity, meant that Johannesburg has been unable to pump sufficient water to replenish urban reservoirs, depriving vast swathes of the city of water for weeks at an end.

Given such realities, SAICE flatters Eskom to rate its generating infrastructure a D- (a D means at risk of failure; not coping with normal demand and poorly maintained, severely inconveniencing the public), rather than an E (unfit for purpose; failed or is on the verge of failure, exposing the public to health and safety hazards). 

Similarly, Eskom’s local distribution also scores a D. This performance is measured by the number of “disruption events and their duration”, and SAICE asserts that “both indicators have remained steady over the last decade”. 

The explanation for this implausibility lies in the following sentence of the report card: “Given the paucity of data on municipal distribution networks, they have been excluded from the grading.” Since most South Africans get their electricity via municipal networks, this is an enormous and misleading lacuna in the report.

SAICE uses the same explanation, the lack of data, as a problem in assessing healthcare infrastructure, where hospitals get a D+ and clinics a D. Its justification is that “in response to Covid-19, a significant amount of funds have (sic) been diverted to emergency infrastructure at a national level. However, the provinces “do not place enough emphasis on maintenance … Inadequate budgets, shortages of suitable staff and administrative issues often result in poor infrastructure condition”.

In education, public schools get a D, universities a C+ (C means satisfactory for now, although stressed at peak periods), and the TVET (technical and vocational education and training) colleges a D+. The report notes that “theft, malicious damage to property and arson remain significant threats”.

As with electricity infrastructure, the IRC’s assessment of water systems understates the potential for disaster. 

Supply in the major urban areas is rated C+. This is surprisingly positive, given that the IRC admits that “in some urban areas the water supply systems have been operated at full capacity and will not be able to meet growing demands unless proactive measures are taken…” 

Supply in “all other areas” is D-, despite the Department of Water & Sanitation rating 34% of almost 1,200 water supply systems as being at “high to critical risk of failure”. As regards the quality of what is intermittently supplied, just 40% of systems achieved microbiological compliance and only 23% chemical compliance.

This is the fifth IRC since 2006 and delivers the lowest overall grade yet, a D. While this is a matter of “great concern”, the SAICE writes rather improbably that “broadly speaking, it is evident that, with the exception of energy generation, economic infrastructure remains in a satisfactory condition.” However, the report card goes on, “the further degradation of social infrastructure paints a dismal picture of the plight that ordinary people face to access basic services of water, sanitation, health, education, public transport and electricity.”

The IRC then turns to evaluating the human resources needed to fix these incipient disasters. While it cheers the heartening and “real South African success story” of the “dramatic increase” in the number of black and female technicians and technologists, this was accompanied by the “displacement” of their older and white engineer counterparts. This has resulted in a “debilitating shortage in engineering skills” and a critical lack of mentorship.

In this regard, too, SAICE tried its best to be positive. It hailed as “encouraging” the government’s “moves to professionalise the public service and focus on skills over political leanings”. But it also warned that many engineers and needed skills have already left.

“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 must supplement their technical human resources for this surge and South Africans, being generally well trained and hardworking, become attractive targets for recruitment.”

SAICE’s determinedly upbeat tone would be considerably muted if the ICR had been bold enough to address the most critical factor influencing a future infrastructural collapse: the African National Congress government. The government need, among other things, to relax race quotas in employment, cease the deployment of party cadres, and curb tender corruption, as well as arrest the criminal gangs that now extort a kickback from every major infrastructural development.

It is on the willingness and ability of the ANC government to deal with these problems impeding infrastructural investment that everything depends. 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 “wholly committed” to transformation and empowerment. B-BBEE is “not under threat and is not being reconsidered”. Preferential procurement, “one of the most transformative pieces of legislation to come out of democratic South Africa”, will remain in place.

How would SAICE rate that response on its report card, one wonders? Although its report card doesn’t have an F (for failed; fucked up beyond retrieval), that’s the symbol that springs readily to mind.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

The full SAICE IRC can be accessed here.