South Africa’s failing infrastructure

Water and moneyRhodes University complained last week that it was “on the brink of having to close” after a water pump broke, leaving 11 residences and about 1,000 people without water for 10 days. It is the latest victim of South Africa’s failing hard infrastructure. Causes vary between poor upkeep, unchecked decay, theft and damage. That is discounting for sheer incompetence or a combination of those factors. The result is that our state is locked in an endless war of attrition with mismanagement and vandalism just to keep basic services running properly. And it’s a war we are losing, badly.

The problem is so acute, the numbers so big and the scale so enormous it defies comprehension. Any one of the key indicators — electricity, water, roads — now boast such monumental maintenance backlogs that the big gap between maintaining the status quo and addressing the backlog itself shows we are in a constant state of regression. And, as with all spiralling debt, it is a vicious cycle. Once trapped in it, the ability just to make a repayment becomes impossible. We no longer service an infrastructure debt in South Africa; we service the interest on a loan, on a debt taken out partially to address a substantial shortfall. We are so far behind the curve we need a new set of axes.

Here are some top-line figures from the media, over the past year:

Water: In February, the Water Research Commission reported that approximately half of all South African water was stolen, wasted or leaking away each year. To give that some quantifiable value, Gauteng MEC for local government and housing Ntombi Mekgwe estimated in May this year that Gauteng municipalities alone collectively had lost about 481-million kilolitres of water in 2012, roughly R7.8bn in financial losses.

Roads: South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) CEO Nazir Ali said last year the backlog for maintenance alone was R149bn. In September last year, the director-general for transport, George Mahlalela, told Parliament: “We require about R80bn annually to sustain what we have. We are only getting R36bn a year.” He estimated that 80% of our road network was older than its designed life of 20 years.

Electricity: The distribution, maintenance and rehabilitation backlog increased by at least R2.5bn annually and in 2012 stood at R35bn, Thabang Audat, the chief director of electricity in the Department of Energy, told Parliament last year.

But there are hidden costs within those costs. Cable theft, for example, affects not just the supply of electricity but also everything from telephone connections to train signalling.

The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry runs a “Copper Theft Barometer” (that we should even have such a thing speaks volumes). For June, it estimated that R11.1m in copper cabling had been stolen. In the past six years, at least R3.2bn worth of cabling has been stolen from Eskom, Telkom, Transnet and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. It is estimated to cost the economy R7bn a year.

A great many other, more minor, hard infrastructure indicators are damaged or neglected to the point of collapse: traffic lights, manhole covers, equipment (from hospitals to schools), public buildings (libraries being a good example) and vehicles (ambulances to police cars, although executive VIP transport seems to be thriving).

Here is a lateral thought: has anyone ever done an analysis of the state of South Africa’s pavements? In Johannesburg, the municipality has essentially abandoned them. Private citizens maintain them, when they have the means or the inclination, to the extent that many must now violate several by-laws. They have become gardens and pedestrians cannot walk through them; they must take to the road.

The implications have become part and parcel of South African life. We joke about electricity blackouts and load-shedding forecasts as being as common as weather predictions. Potholes and broken traffic lights have their own reports on radio news shows. Train delays are more prevalent than doctors’ notes at businesses across the country and we drive through more water puddles when it’s dry than when it’s raining, as broken mains everywhere gush a human right onto the streets. Coping with our failing infrastructure has become a way of life.

When the implications are more profound, we read about them in the papers, but only as a passing nod in chaos’s direction. Rhodes, for example, is by no means unique.

In November last year, newborn babies were discharged from Nkhensani Hospital in Giyani, Limpopo, covered in blood. They were sent home to bath because the hospital had not had water in three months. The necessary equipment to pump water had been stolen or broken. In Vhembe, residents were without water after R700,000 worth of damage was done to the Madombidzha pump station. Every cable between the control box and the main pump, as well as the stand-by pump, was destroyed. In January, Tekwane, outside Mbombela in Mpumalanga, went without water for five days. A water pump broke after illegal connections had damaged it. This month communities in Lusikisiki, also in the Eastern Cape, went without water for two weeks as the municipality battled to fix leaking water pipes.

The Gautrain — the very metaphor for Johannesburg as a “world-class African city” — has, on numerous occasions, been forced to shut down due to cable theft. An average delay of this sort prevents about 50 trains from running and the consequences can be deadly. When a passenger train had an accident near Saulsville earlier this year, leaving roughly 200 people injured, copper cable theft was sited as the cause. In other train accidents, caused by a similar problem, people have lost their lives.

When electricity supply is not being prevented through such theft, our dilapidated infrastructure has caused blackouts and load shedding. Hospitals have often suffered as a result. In March, generators failed to kick in at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Gauteng, leaving its intensive-care unit without electricity for four hours. In June, a three-and-a-half-day power outage shut down Somerset Hospital in Cape Town. The hospital does not have a back-up generator. Section27, which has made an issue out of this particular problem, reports that, elsewhere, “the power outages have led to instances in which surgeons operated using headlights and cellphone light”.

The effects often reach far beyond standard public services; they are undermining national security too. Earlier this year, it was reported that Silvermine Military Command, the naval base in Cape Town, had its communications compromised when more than 5km of copper cabling was stolen over the course of a year.

And there is a profound cost to all of this, one increasingly born by a tiny section of the South African population able to pay rates and taxes. Where they cannot cover the collective cost of supplying services, huge debts follow. The South African water boards are owed more than R1bn by municipalities unable to collect revenue. Eskom has been forced to hike its rates to astronomical levels in a desperate attempt to cover a maintenance backlog long out of control, as well to counter the same problems the water boards face. In November last year, Eskom revealed it was owed R3.3bn by Soweto residents alone.

And collecting revenue is itself badly managed. By way of illustration, the Johannesburg billing crisis has become a tragic comedy. It might be funny to receive a bill for R1m; it is less funny when the municipality demands payment, unless you are the African National Congress (ANC) itself, in which case these sorts of things are sorted out in double-quick time, as happened when Luthuli House received an erroneous bill recently.

Were someone with enough time and energy to compose a composite picture of the state of South Africa’s infrastructure, it would beggar belief. But, then, this is South Africa. It is our reality. We live in chaos and we have become quite good at it. Acknowledging it without acting on it allows us to live in harmony with it, and, in an act of real self-inflicted harm, because we don’t truly recognise it, we can add to its intensity by stripping the state bare of its assets.

Over the past few years, as the various imploding state entities have reached the point of collapse, the ANC government has responded with a huge increase in infrastructure spend. But it has a loan-shark-like relationship with citizens. It cannot pay back its debt fast enough, and as much as it demands more rates, tariffs and taxes, it cannot generate enough revenue to service its constitutional obligations.

Luckily, it has a forgiving client or one disinterested in the implications. Disorder is now accepted as the norm. We can live with it as long as it does not fundamentally compromise our day-to-day lives. And we have lost the ability to express the appropriate outrage at the extent of the problem. Millions, billions and trillions have become numbers without meaning. It’s all too much.

In the long term, there are obvious consequences for excellence (the benchmark has become stability). Identifying crises honestly and bluntly becomes a cause for celebration, never mind actually engaging with them. And, of course, accountability is affected, for a crisis lends itself to forgiveness — supposedly, everyone is doing their best under difficult circumstances — but there is much to be said about our collective psyche too.

Live in a constant state of turmoil, decay and neglect and, soon enough, even the garbage can begin to smell like roses, depending on when it was thrown out.

Nelson Mandela has quietly disappeared from the front pages. No more tribute walls, people crying on television or media frenzy, but his condition has not changed. He remains, we are told, “critical but stable”. That can only mean future despair and pain but, much like South Africa, now that we have digested the extent of the problem, we have other things to worry about for the moment. It’s how we cope.

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