The Challenges Facing Road Maintenance in SA and Finding the Right Solutions to Them

Road maintenance in South Africa’s not only critical to the physical mobility of our population, but to the overall success of so many industries and labour forces across the country. It’s important to recognise the challenges and problems surrounding road maintenance in South Africa, while acknowledging the progress being made in cost-effective, reliable and high-quality road maintenance solutions.

Our national and municipal road networks are critical infrastructure to our economic productivity and will be critical in the post-pandemic economic recovery facing South Africa and most countries worldwide. Unfortunately, the poor conditions of parts of South Africa’s road network will continue to slow down some of our recovery progress as we come towards the end of the pandemic.

Multiple industries and most workforces are dependent on these roads for access to essential services, transportation of goods, movement of workers and different municipalities. Poor road maintenance can limit this access and increase carbon emissions by causing uneconomical driving, frequent road closures and increasing the risk of road incidents.

Lives and livelihoods are at stake in rural areas as local communities need to access hospitals, schools and other essential services, as well as getting to work inside the city and transporting produce from their local farms. The national government has understood that adequate road maintenance is an infrastructural priority and requires significant public-private cooperation.

According to research conducted by UCT’s School of Economics, the national backlog for South Africa’s road maintenance is over 420 billion rand. There are national and research programmes that span 44 district municipalities and all nine provinces which are assessing the quality and condition of South Africa’s road networks.

Finding the problem areas will be the first step, the second step will be allocating the adequate budget to meet our countrywide road maintenance needs. We’ll need to increase our current national spending, by up to ten times, in order to cover the resources required to fix and maintain South Africa’s roadways.

It’s clear to see that if we’re going to improve the condition of our road networks, we’re going to have to take four decisive and actionable steps going forward. We’ll need to:

  • Properly evaluate and measure the cost of South Africa’s road maintenance backlog.
  • Scale up our national skills development and investment in infrastructure maintenance.
  • Consolidate our road networks and decommission roads not contributing to the economy.
  • Commit the necessary resources and political will to solve the problems facing our national roadways.

It’s clear that the national backlog’s well over 400 billion rand. However, the exact cost of the road maintenance backlog’s unclear and the actual cost of correcting these infrastructural debts and transportation challenges could be even larger, in reality. The skills, resources, funds and research required to meet South Africa’s road maintenance needs can only be accomplished through collaboration amongst private companies, academic institutions and our government.

Every year, national road authorities are obligated to publish reports on the condition of their roads and any planned – or required – maintenance. In recent years, these reports have been made public to promote visibility, accountability and action. However, the question remains: will the appropriate authorities make the necessary changes and needed investments to improve our country’s roads?

There’s a current human resource, national investment and skills deficit that district municipalities and road authorities must overcome. Without improvements in these areas, road maintenance will be less reliable and needed more frequently. Our government needs to use all of this data, resource investment and skills development to prioritise roads that are contributing to economic and social needs – and decommission roads that aren’t.

Ultimately, it’ll be the road users and businesses – that are trying to recover – who will have to pay the price for poorly maintained roads. We’ll be the ones to face the inevitable challenges of delays, accidents, decreased productivity, increased vehicle operating costs, road closures, missed economic opportunities and more.

Without taking the necessary steps to improve the condition of our national roadways, it becomes much harder to successfully recover from the social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Government, road authorities, federations, organisations, research units and companies must come together to overcome South Africa’s road maintenance challenges and find the right solutions.

South Africa’s home to the world’s tenth-largest road network that spans over 750, 000 kilometres and the eighteenth longest paved road network. To maintain this expansive network of national and municipal roads, we’ll have to grow South Africa’s skills development programmes, keep up with road maintenance trends and technologies and empower workers and businesses to apply these skills to our roadways.

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