Government lashed for ’empty promises’ on infrastructure investment

Lack of implementation highlighted as the major problem.
Despite assurances of a revival of the industry in 2021 construction turnover continues to decline. Image: Bloomberg

The government’s planned R96 billion infrastructure expenditure programme has again been criticised because of its slow to non-existent implementation, despite President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasising in his State of the Nation Address (Sona) that infrastructure is central to South Africa’s economic reconstruction and recovery.

Construction market intelligence firm Industry Insight cast doubt on the rollout of the infrastructure investment programme in a comment under the headline ‘More empty promises on infrastructure delivery at 2022 SONA?’

“We have learnt through hard experience over the years to not give much attention to the Sona, as it is all too often filled with empty promises, simply spoken in the hope to encourage a nation, but in the end leads to great disappointment and a loss of trust,” it said.

Implementation essential

SA Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) CEO Webster Mfebe said the government’s infrastructure expenditure programme will only succeed if ‘three’ things happen.

“Implementation, implementation and implementation. Nothing short of that,” he said.

Mfebe said there are offshoots from the infrastructure programme, such as in the roads sector, where for example the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) has awarded some projects worth billions in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, which is commendable.

“One would not want to be ungrateful because the sector has been in the doldrums for quite a long time but the real issue is of a lack of consequent management,” he said.

Government’s plans

Ramaphosa provided details about the government’s infrastructure investment plans in his 2022 Sona.

He said that through innovative funding and improved technical capabilities, the government has prioritised infrastructure projects to support economic growth and better livelihoods, especially in energy, roads and water management.

“The Infrastructure Fund is at the centre of this effort, with a R100 billion allocation from the fiscus over 10 years,” said Ramaphosa.

“The Infrastructure Fund is now working with state entities to prepare a pipeline of projects with an investment value of approximately R96 billion in student accommodation, social housing, telecommunications, water and sanitation and transport.”

He added that several catalytic projects to the value of R21 billion are expected to start construction this year.

“Of this, R2.6 billion is contributed by government and the balance from the private sector and developmental finance institutions.

“Government will make an initial investment of R1.8 billion in bulk infrastructure, which will unlock seven private sector projects to the value of R133 billion.”

Ramaphosa said the government will be upscaling the Welisizwe Rural Bridges Programme to deliver 95 bridges a year from the current 14, adding that for millions of South Africans in rural areas, roads and bridges provide access to markets, employment opportunities and social services.

He said the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is the implementing agent of the Welisizwe programme and has demonstrated the expertise of its engineers in bridge construction.

Ramaphosa added that the rural roads programme will use labour-intensive methods to construct or upgrade 685 kilometres of rural road over the next three years, with this social enterprise programme including access roads in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, gravel-to-surface upgrades in Free State and North West, and capacity and connectivity improvements in the Western Cape.

The government has also initiated the process of delivering the uMzimvubu Water Project and is introducing an innovative social infrastructure delivery mechanism to address issues that afflict the delivery of school infrastructure, he said.

He added that the project “is made of the Ntabelanga Dam and Lalini Dam, irrigation infrastructure and hydo-electric plant, Ntabelanga water treatment works and bulk distribution infrastructure to reticulate to the neighboring communities”.

He said the first of the two-stage procurement process is scheduled to close later this month, with the preferred bidder likely to be announced in September.

Promises

Despite the details on infrastructure projects provided by Ramaphosa, Industry Insight said that with a focus on infrastructure development, it is looking for guidance on where the country is heading in terms of infrastructure rollout programmes “promised over the years”.

“As expected Ramaphosa again reiterated the importance of infrastructure being central to the country’s economic reconstruction and recovery, again stating a ‘massive rollout of infrastructure throughout the country’, his exact words in the Sona 2021, which has unfortunately so far failed to materialise,” it said.

Industry Insight highlighted that there was not much further elaboration on the R340 billion infrastructure investment project pipeline announced in the 2021 Sona “where it was said construction has started and progress is being made”.

“Through 2021 we have seen little to no evidence of these projects, with construction turnover continuing to decline and confidence levels among building and civil contractors remaining at an all-time low,” it said.

The firm added that nothing was mentioned about the Lanseria Smart City for which the masterplan was completed in November 2020 and promises in 2021 of a “revival of the construction industry” were “left empty”.

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It questioned where the 300 000 student beds are that were part of an approved project pipeline announced in 2021 and what progress was made to strengthen and support municipalities to address inadequate and inconsistent service delivery.

Industry Insight emphasised that it was stated that support to municipalities would include the appointment of properly qualified officials at local level.

“And so the list goes on,” it said.

Scissors needed for the red tape

Ramaphosa in his Sona announced the appointment of former Exxaro Resources CEO and current chair of the Small Business Institute Sipho Nkosi to head up a team in his office to cut red tape across government.

However, Safcec’s Mfebe doubted a single individual will succeed in cutting red tape because red tape is a function of a non-functioning state, where there is lack of consequent management to deal with the various departments, the head of departments and their subordinates “who are not implementing the very good plans government has announced year after year but that don’t get to be implemented”.

“All I can wish is that the recommendations of Nkosi do not fall on [deaf] ears and he is given enough support from the Presidency to ensure that those who are responsible for non-delivery are made to account,” he said.

Mfebe said some director-generals have problems with their own ministers, who frustrate delivery.

“Those issues need decisive action by the president without fear or favour to ensure we get out of this abyss of being regarded as a sub investment grade country by the rating agencies,” he said.

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We must contain our criticism of the government agencies in their “empty promises on infrastructure investment and lack of implementation.”

An analogy is giving a two year old a Lego Creator Expert Ford Mustang Model Car kit and expecting him to build it. They simply do not have the capability.

End of comments.

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