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Potholes in South Africa grow from 15 million to 25 million in just five years, SA roads federation reveals

Potholes in South Africa grow from 15 million to 25 million in just five years, SA roads federation reveals
(Photo: Gallo Images / Misha Jordaan)

Twenty-five million potholes – that’s the estimate for South Africa. Five years ago it was 15 million. The main reason is inadequate maintenance, which results in a vicious cycle that creates even deeper holes in the pockets of the administering authorities.

It is estimated that it costs between R2,000 and R3,000 per square metre to fix one pothole, depending on its size. The lack of maintenance increases the repair costs 18-fold if full rehabilitation of a road is deemed necessary.

These figures were revealed at the seventh South African Roads Federation (SARF) Regional Conference for Africa, which started in Cape Town on Tuesday, 17 October.  It’s a number often repeated by the South African National Roads Agency too. The conference, which ended on Thursday, was attended by leading road experts and decision-makers from across the continent. 

In August, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula announced plans to eradicate potholes across the country when he launched Operation Vala Zonke with the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) as the implementing agency.

The department also launched an app on which people can report potholes. 

“This campaign – Vala Zonke – will change the face of our municipal and provincial roads from pothole-riddled to an acceptable state of repair,” Mbalula said at the launch, adding: “This launch will be replicated across the country with premiers and MECs leading provincial launches.”

On Twitter, Mbalula’s followers always tag him on potholes that need fixing. 

The country’s roads are so bad that insurer Discovery partnered with the City of Johannesburg and Dial Direct to repair potholes in Johannesburg. Potholes fixed by Discovery are marked to show that they have been fixed by the insurer and not the government or municipalities. 

Former SARF president Mutshutshu Nxumalo said that while South Africa’s road network was one of its greatest assets, a mere 5% was allocated to it from the national fiscus.

“Sanral is doing good work, but they can’t do it on their own. There is an imbalance between the understanding of what needs to be achieved and the political will. We have legislation but the wrong leadership.”

Nxumalo said inadequate road maintenance was “far-reaching and disastrous”, putting public safety at risk, causing the destruction of transport routes, disrupting the movement of goods, negatively affecting tourism and resulting in major claims from the Road Accident Fund.

“Our roads go through their lifespan without maintenance, which eventually leads to bigger problems. Our potholes specifically are caused by a delay in the response to fixing them timeously,” Nxumalo said.

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The Western Cape department of transport and public works (DTPW) does not have a figure for how many of the 25 million potholes in South Africa are in the province. Department spokesperson Jandré Bakker said potholes on roads in its jurisdiction were not an issue because they believe in preventative maintenance. 

“We attribute this to our proactive maintenance regime. This regime has various types of work that are actioned, which ranges from rehabilitation, resurfacing to periodic maintenance, and to replacement of infrastructure in totality. Emergency repairs are also actioned.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Chairperson of Joburg’s ‘potholes’ agency suspended

In the 2021/22 financial year they had completed the next 10-year planning cycle in the form of the Road Asset Management Plan, which covered 2022/23 to 2031/32.

“This does not mean that our road network is in perfect condition, and often priorities would have to be set to fit within the available resources. We must also remember that the province has a vast gravel road network that needs to be maintained as well.”

‘Not rocket science’

Professor Philip Paige-Green of Tshwane University’s Engineering Department said there was more to the issue than just filling potholes.

“There was a study released by the CSIR in 2010 that details the approach we should be taking to deal with potholes. But little of what was proposed has been implemented on our provincial, urban and district roads. It’s simple: if they aren’t fixed properly, they won’t last.”

He cited an example of a road on which potholes were fixed for decades, but they kept recurring. 

“What no one seemed to notice is that there was lush green grass right next to the road, which meant there was a water source. This is not rocket science; it should be clear to understand that any filling of potholes here wouldn’t work without taking care of the water source,” he said. DM


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