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South African authorities know next to nothing about their own roads

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) has released its 2022 infrastructure report card, providing a snapshot of the current condition and performance of the country’s infrastructure including, importantly, the roads.

However, in crafting the report card, the SAICE was not able to obtain reliable information about the condition of their roads from the majority of district and local municipalities. Only the National Roads Agency (Sanral), the provincial authorities of Western Cape and Mpumalanga, and a big share of metropolitan municipalities were able to provide any useful data.

“Information from other roads authorities, in particular district and local municipalities, was comparatively scarce and too incomplete to enable general conclusions to be drawn,” said the SAICE.

Thus, the report card is only able to offer a 2022 equivalent to the 2017 grading for these municipalities’ paved roads “only on the basis that, from what is known, their roads generally suffer from significant and increasing maintenance neglect.”

Road network report card

The SAICE’s report card concludes that there is currently no reliable database of the lengths and ownerships of roads in the country, as comparing the information from various resources revealed “apparent duplication of ownership, sections of road with no owner, and other discrepancies.”

Nevertheless, it has revealed that secondary and tertiary intercity roads are undergoing accelerated deterioration, so much so that both the efficiency and cost of moving freight on them face severe challenges while simultaneously, safety is compromised.

The widespread overloading of roads and poor stormwater management are other major contributory factors to the deterioration of the road network, according to the SAICE.

Additionally, the country’s gravel road network is too extensive and the budgets too constrained for the entire grid to be kept in a satisfactory condition.

However, the greatest concern is currently the limited capacity of the road authorities.

Information from district and local municipalities was too scarce or incomplete to draw a conclusion on the conditions of the roads they are responsible for, inferring that “authorities which are not sufficiently informed of the condition of their roads would very likely also not be able to manage these assets in a satisfactory manner,” said the SAICE.

Moreover, governmental entities do not report expenditures in a uniform way and it remains difficult to track budget allocations.

Improving the system

Going forward, the SAICE points to two main areas that the road authorities should focus on.

Standard practice says roads that are more vital to the economy must receive preferential treatment and be kept in better condition, with the Western Cape and Mpumalanga departments following this strategy.

However, traffic being the main determinant of maintenance prioritisation has led to funding being allocated year after year to roads that are generally in good shape, while other, lesser-used routes fall further and further into disarray.

“Consider though that a particular road might carry a very low volume of traffic, but is the only link for some otherwise isolated communities. Surely this road should receive better attention than its count of low vehicle-kilometres driven would suggest,” said the institute.

This shortfall in funding strategies is “seldom assessed by roads authorities” and greater policy clarity is needed both in the methodology for prioritising road expenditure as well as in the method for estimating the economic significance of a certain route.

More attention must also be placed on improving public transport as well as non-motorised transport infrastructure, said the SAICE.

Roughly 73% of South African households rely on public transport as their main form of mobility, while 20% of all workers walk to their place of employment.

“These statistics point to the need for improved public transport as well as non-motorised transport infrastructure, which in practice is often lacking and, even when available, not captured in asset registers,” said the SAICE.

“The lack of non-motorised transport infrastructure is one of the main contributors to the extremely high number of road fatalities in South Africa.”

Who manages the road

South Africa’s roads are approximately 750,000km in length and said to be the tenth-longest road network of any nation, said the SAICE.

Responsibility for this vast grid is split as follows:

  • Sanral – Primary intercity, with economic roads
  • Provincial departments – Secondary and tertiary intercity network, primary access, and mobility roads
  • Local authorities – Urban and rural municipal roads

The individual road lengths that these entities are responsible for are detailed in the below table.

The authorities are in charge of assessing the roads under their jurisdiction annually, or at least biennially, and then grade them on a visual condition index (VCI) using a five-point scale ranging from very poor to very good.

The goal of this tracking is to establish trends in surface conditions and then allocate construction, rehabilitation, and maintenance accordingly.

“In practice, few South African road authorities undertake regular condition assessments of their road systems” which has led to the relevant entities not being able to provide sufficient information on the state of their roads for purposes of drafting the report card.

A positive move has been that in 2018 the department of transport (DoT) initiated a programme to force provincial road authorities to develop, maintain, and operate proper pavement management systems.

DoT would then be able to measure annual performance plans for municipalities and provincial road authorities. This process was, however, interrupted by the Covid-19 travel bans and progress is therefore not where it was planned to have been.


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