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The SA Road Network: Background and current issues 2006-08-16
Malcolm Mitchell

*Executive Director, South African Road Federation


The South African road network is an important factor in the social and economic development of the country, strongly dominating the inter city and urban, freight and passenger markets.

The primary characteristic of the road network is the great variance in standards and serviceability that exists within the network – more so than in most counties in the world. Fund allocation inconsistencies over the years and institutional capacity variability are probably the prime reason for this state of affairs. Elements of the network vary between high standard national and metropolitan roads, carrying in excess of 150 000 v.p.d., and at the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of thousands of dirt/gravel roads, some of which have daily traffic volumes of up to 2000 v.p.d.

The advent of “modern” roads in South Africa commenced during the early post World War II days, modeled to a large extent on North American practice. The country embarked on a considerable road enhancement programme from the mid-1960’s up to about the end of the 1970’s. These were the “golden years” for road development in the country and much of the current primary national and provincial network was “laid down” during this period. The primary metropolitan roads were also developed during this 15 to 20 year period.

Until the mid-80’s the emphasis on primary road infrastructure development was on handling the rapidly growing traffic demand between the main cities of the country. However under the influence of transport policy studies between 1976 and 1985, increased emphasis was also placed on the promotion of the development of export related freight movements and towards increasing mobility in metropolitan areas, whilst at the same time maintaining efficient and safe linkages between the main centres of population in the country.

Unfortunately towards the end of the 1970’s adequate resources of road funds started to diminish, as the country became faced with rapidly escalating costs in other sectors of society.


Significant disinvestment in the road sector took place with ultimately disastrous consequences for the network and its users. This was unfortunately combined with a rapid growth in road traffic, occasioned mainly by rapidly rising vehicle ownership rates in the private sector as well as a phenomenal growth in freight conveyance by road, primarily because of the inability of the rail mode to offer an acceptable service to shippers, but also by deregulation in the movement of freight – a consequence of the national transport policy studies.

                The extent of the disinvestment in the road sector during this period is illustrated by the fact, in constant rand values; total expenditure on rural roads in South Africa in 1990 was half the amount it was in 1975. This was a period when the country was faced by rampant inflation which had a severe effect on road construction prices. However even during a period of greatly reduced inflation between 1997 and 2005 expenditure in real terms on roads has remained nearly static, growing only by approximately 10% for this 8 year period.

National roads, through the advent of loan financing redeemed by road tolling in the early 1980’s, and road concessioning to private consortiums from the mid-1990’s has to a large extent managed to maintain its network in an acceptable condition – though network length has been severely reduced from what it was in earlier years.

Provincial roads however suffered severely from this disinvestment, and in the face of severe financial constraints the authorities were unable to maintain the quality of the provincial road system  beyond the mid-1980’s. Severe overloading by many road freight hauliers has exacerbated the position and has led to major structural damage to roads in certain haulage corridors. The current position of the South African road provincial network is such that measured by the Visual Condition Index,  35% of surfaced roads were in a poor to very poor state in 2002 and the figure today (2006) is not likely to be better, in fact it is probably worse. To put this into perspective, in 1988 only about 5% of the roads were in a similar condition. In at least one province, surfaced roads in a poor condition were ripped up and converted to gravel roads because they were less costly to maintain in this condition.

Based on the last survey conducted by Department of Transport, roads deteriorated from a ‘good’ in 1988, to ‘fair to poor’ in 1999. National roads, efficiently managed by the National Roads Agency, maintained their condition rating, as did roads in the Northern Cape, where traffic was low and ground conditions good. In KwaZulu-Natal, however, traffic was high and ground conditions poor, and as a result roads deteriorated from ‘good’  to ‘poor’.

Added to this situation was a paradigm shift in provincial road planning where road provision has shifted from traffic demand as the primary criterion for road expenditure, to the provision of local road access for deep rural communities.

Road users are taxed some R43 billion a year of which only R13 billion is fed back into the network. It is well known that if roads are not repaired timeously costs can rise sevenfold. If we want to reinstate the road network to its condition of 15 years ago it will require additional funding of approximately R10 billion annually over and above existing expenditure.

All indications point to the general neglect of maintenance on many of the country’s roads and any road maintenance that does take place appears to be patchy and haphazard, rather than planned and systematic. Potholes are now a major problem, causing accidents and widespread damage to vehicles. For instance on the N12 between Bloemhof and Christiana the speed limit has had to be reduced to 60km due to the prevalence of potholes and on some sections of the road cars have to slow down to a snail’s pace to avoid major damage. Similar situations exist on too many other stretches of the country’s roads.

A general rule of thumb on the competency of any road authority is the speed at which potholes are repaired. In more developed countries 72 hours is the norm. On major freeways in the USA, 24 hours is the rule. Six to nine months seems to be the norm in South Africa and this can extend to two or even three years.

The dynamics of the road infrastructure in the country are its inability, with some exceptions, to meet the current and future postulated demand on it, capacity constraints in respect of technical and professional expertise in most road authorities, a steadily increasing road accident and death rate, vastly inappropriate road user costs as a consequence of the poor structural condition of the road pavements and traffic congestion in our major metropolitan areas, a dysfunctional institutional arrangement for the road delivery function of government, inadequate data for sound planning and a lack of proper and integrated road management systems. Other factors include inadequate professional and technical capacity in government, primarily, but also in Black Economic Empowerment Companies; and inadequate management of road operations with respect to factors such as safety, overloading, enforcement of Road Traffic Act, etc.

The recent pronouncement by government of vastly increased funds to be made available for road maintenance and rehabilitation as well as for network development is welcomed and, provided capacity still exists for effective utilization of the funds, might see a turnaround in the fortunes of the road network in the country. Road authorities have recently had their budgets significantly increased and SARF believes that the major portion should be allocated to preserving the country’s road network. To do otherwise will be courting disaster.

The South African Road Federation (SARF) is committed to promoting improvements in these and other areas. As part of this endeavour it, in conjunction with the International Road Federation ( IRF), will be holding a three day conference on “Roads for the Africa Renaissance” in Durban during September this year where these and other issues will be debated.

The conference seeks to bring together political and executive decision-makers as well as researchers and other professionals in the roads field to examine the state of the African road network and what can be done in terms of sound delivery, management and operations. The ability of the road industry to deliver the safe and efficient conveyance of freight and people so that the necessary economic and social growth sought in terms of the Millennium Development Goals for Africa – and particularly the alleviation of poverty – will be explored.



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