South Africa

The great infrastructure reset needs to happen in the next few years, not decades

The government’s memorandum of agreement on a R100m boost for the National Infrastructure Fund is a welcome development, signalling the opportunity for SA to fast-track economic recovery and dramatically and permanently improve the lives of all South Africans.

It comes at an opportune time, when the Covid-19 pandemic has already drawn a line at the end of the “old normal” and now presents ideal conditions for a “Great Reset”, as outlined by the World Economic Forum.

However, while SA aligns with the world in recognising the importance of infrastructure development for socioeconomic development, it is crucial that the country approaches this new development programme mindfully and inclusively, considering its impacts and potential benefits for all South Africans and future generations.

To maximise the potential of the National Infrastructure Plan, key factors should be taken into account. Proper planning eliminates risk, ensures that projects run cost-effectively and efficiently, and, crucially, allows for benefits to be built into the projects beyond the scope of works.

Planning in consultation with stakeholders across the board can allow for infrastructure not only to serve its basic purpose but also to support the development of integrated, sustainable and future-proof built environments, for example. Partnerships across the public and private sectors and academia can bring a wealth of knowledge to the planning process to ensure any infrastructure developed now serves the needs of future generations.

Traditional procurement and project lead times can extend to years. However, no economy has the luxury of waiting for years, let alone decades, to reap the benefits of infrastructure development programmes, particularly after Covid-19 when our economy is particularly fragile. We need to move quickly.

The entire industry should already be working around the clock, preparing to begin work. Yet it is ominously quiet, which is not a good sign. The national infrastructure development programme is far-reaching enough to revive and grow the entire industry, and should present ample opportunities for all stakeholders. Large and small industry players are standing by, ready to begin work. Many are closing their doors. Jobs are being lost instead of created. Time for action must be speeded up to allow for business growth and fast-track the delivery of the benefits to the nation.

If the infrastructure development programme is to deliver on its socioeconomic development objectives, diversity and inclusivity must be embedded at every stage. This is the ideal time to create more diversity in the sector, allocating work to smaller, empowered firms. There will be ample work to go around, and insufficient key skills to meet the needs of the programme. By allocating tenders to smaller companies, the programme will gain the benefits of entrepreneurial innovation, agility and an understanding of the needs in local communities, as well as creating jobs and potentially reigniting economic development in smaller centres and rural areas.

A key element is the opportunity to stimulate skills development that goes far beyond temporary job creation. It is important to frame our projects and spend in such a way that legitimate, long-term skills transfer and development takes place countrywide. We need to ensure that carefully crafted programmes result in legitimate development of portable skills.

The programme must also build inclusivity into its long-term vision: developments must support sustainable smart cities and towns that make access to services available to all, and create an enabling environment for economic development for everyone, countrywide.

To ensure sustainable infrastructure that supports the needs of future generations we have to be innovative in our planning. We need to look at new technologies and smarter built environment models that deliver robust systems to service everyone’s needs. This is the time for cross-sector partnerships between the public and private sector and academia, to both stimulate and tap into research & development and innovation.

It is crucial that all stakeholders involved in delivering on the infrastructure development programme remain cognisant of the changing needs of society. The infrastructure put in place now must be sustainably delivered and environmentally friendly, it must incorporate innovation, green technologies and materials, and renewable energy. It should create sustainable, integrated cities and towns that enable circular economies and allow for equitable access to transport, schools, shops and services.

What we build now must be future proof and leave no-one behind.

• Padayachee-Saman is CEO of civil engineering and development consulting firm Mpamot.

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