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Fixing infrastructure maintenance problems would help solve jobs crisis

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

South Africa faces two closely related crises: Unemployment and infrastructure collapse. By seriously, and intelligently, addressing the maintenance of infrastructure, government would take a huge step towards solving the problem it professes is its prime focus: Creating new jobs.

The former National Party government delivered infrastructure in South Africa and maintained it at an adequate level, but delivered those services mostly to a small racially delineated population. The NP had to go. The new ANC government had many competing and complex priorities and sometimes a lack of understanding what the limit of the countries resources were. In the past 17 years, it has delivered services to many who never had them before. A trip to Soweto will show you the tarred roads, electrical infrastructure, new parks (often constructed in 24 hours by City Parks), a million new trees (small, 1.6m saplings) and the makings of a new Bus Rapid Transit system called Reya Vaya – “We are going!”

Unfortunately, the long-term planning of new infrastructure and maintenance of existing infrastructure has been handled on an ad-hoc and uncoordinated basis. Trevor Manuel, Ebrahim Patel and Colins Chabane were supposed to address this problem. Unfortunately, they seem to be looking at this from a high-level, ideological viewpoint and through the lens of examining policy, legal frameworks and the structures of local government.

The extent of the problem is large and diverse. The Eskom crisis is an obvious one. We focus on the lack of new capacity, but there has also been a massive maintenance backlog. Often power stations operate way below capacity due to preventable breakdowns. The water crisis has many aspects too. The acid mine drainage problems in Johannesburg and elsewhere could have been predicted and limited earlier, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The water pipes in the City of Johannesburg lose 40% of the water purchased from Rand Water before it ever reaches the taps. The majority of sewerage treatment plants around the country are in need of major repair or replacement and the droughts in the western provinces and floods in eastern provinces can only be addressed by the construction of new dams, canals and pipelines. The maintenance of roads, other than national ones maintained by Sanral, is not being performed and road surfaces are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Visit Mpumalanga or Free State if you have any doubts, and drive anywhere off the national roads. The state of some of the road infrastructure will shock you. The rural Eastern Cape is telling.

Yet we have a large unemployment problem. Therein lies an opportunity to address – to a degree – both problems simultaneously. Instead of more presidential and provincial call centres, what is required are more artisans and maintenance crews out on the roads. Government is unable to complete maintenance on existing infrastructure and continues to roll out new infrastructure projects such as the Gautrain, the BRT system, the soccer stadiums and the upgraded national highways system. As we build new structures, the old ones are collapsing behind them.

We need a complete change of focus. If we don’t want the infrastructure to collapse, government should focus on two new priorities:

  1. Retaining skilled workers who can complete maintenance of infrastructure. We need more plumbers, electricians, welders, engineers, environmental experts and so on. They need to perform two key functions: Predict maintenance failures and perform all the routine maintenance that keep the systems going. In the case of the City of Johannesburg, these plumbers and engineers would pay for their own salaries through the water saving. All the water is paid for and only 60% is recovered. Recover the other 40%  by preventing leakage and salaries are recouped very quickly.
  2. Outsourcing contracts. Where the skills cannot be retained by a particular government entity because the skill is not constantly required, you can outsource the project to an SMME, thereby helping them expand and employ more workers. Government needs to concentrate on becoming more efficient at managing outsourced contracts. This creates jobs in the private sector, while maintaining infrastructure.

All of this sounds quite simplistic, but many of the jobs created by constructing the Gautrain, football stadiums and so on are temporary. Experts are sourced from all over the world to complete these complex projects and, on completion, they move elsewhere. However, maintenance will always be required and SA is currently experiencing a maintenance crisis in a number of fields. These jobs will be more permanent, as maintenance will always be needed. Investing in maintenance ensures we do not have these crises and creates reliable services for new businesses in the future. Reliable electricity provision was one factor in the Alcan decision in Coega. How many other companies have begun to wonder about the future reliability of electricity and water supply? The labour laws and reliable infrastructure are the two factors companies consider when deciding whether or not to locate a future plant in South Africa and it just so happens that by securing reliable services through regular maintenance, we will create thousands of permanent maintenance jobs.

Now, why has government not done this sufficiently in the past 17 years? Well, therein lies an interesting political discussion… DM

Ian Ollis is a DA MP.


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