Political risk and openness to trade are often emphasised for their ability to encourage or deter foreign direct investment in an economy. While it might not be in the spotlight as a means to encourage these investments, infrastructure is essential to promote business operations and accelerate economic development.

The National Development Plan (NDP) is clear about the contribution that the national roads network can make to balanced growth, job creation and entrepreneurship. It refers to these roads as “South Africa’s largest single public asset” and highlights their role in connecting people and moving products from small settlements to the centres of economic activity.

The design, management and maintenance of the road network all contribute to mobility, support economic growth objectives and offer improved access to economic opportunities and government services to communities across the country. However, the legacy of apartheid spatial planning often inhibits balanced growth and prevents communities from accessing these opportunities. The planning of the future road network must take into account the role of this critical infrastructure to facilitate easier access to such opportunities, jobs and resources.

These are among the factors that influence current and future plans to manage the existing road network and expand into geographical areas that have been marginalised in the past. At the same time, the network supports the growth of those sectors of the economy that will be vital to the country’s future developmental trajectory. Major road upgrades that are currently underway will support the growth of tourism by providing easier and safer access to destinations that were inaccessible in the past.

Access to world-class roads is the common denominator of all 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) identified in the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). It is a vital factor in unlocking the economic potential of the northern mineral belt (SIP 1). In the Durban-Free State-Gauteng logistics corridor (SIP 2), most of the primary movement of goods, products and services will take place on the road network. And in the Saldanha-Northern Cape corridor (SIP 5), the road system will sustain the envisaged expansion of an integrated rail and port system. SIP 4, which seeks to unlock economic opportunities in the North West, will also require accelerated investments in transport and other economic infrastructure to support the sustained growth of the mining, agriculture and tourism sectors.

The launch of the Infrastructure Fund by President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated the importance of infrastructure for furthering South Africa’s development goals. In response to these announcements on the new infrastructure stimulus package, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) confirmed that it has “shovel-ready projects” with a value of more than R2-billion on national and provincial roads in all nine provinces. Most of these projects have already started and some will reach completion before the end of 2020.

According to the Roads Agency, it has construction projects that are already being implemented and will fit in seamlessly with other initiatives designed to attract investment from the private sector and development finance institutions. In the Eastern Cape, for example, work on the N2 Wild Coast Road, which will unlock the potential of one of the country’s poorest regions, is well underway. It will help to eradicate the legacy of apartheid spatial planning that has isolated many communities from access to government services and opportunities in the fields of tourism, heritage and agri-processing.

The current projections are that every R1 spent on the roads project will unlock R3.15 for the local and regional economies. Within the regional context, the N2 Wild Coast Road will save three hours of travel time between Durban and East London, improve logistical linkages, and facilitate the easier and safer movement of people, goods and services.

Further north, the new Mount Edgecombe Interchange between Durban and the King Shaka International Airport was recently opened. This was the culmination of an intricate engineering and construction project that was recognised by the Concrete Society of Southern Africa as the top infrastructure project of the year in 2017. The value of this initiative stretches beyond the engineering achievements. It represents investment in strategic economic infrastructure that will unlock greater value for the city of eThekwini, the province of KwaZulu-Natal and regions further afield, including the neighbouring countries like eSwatini and Mozambique.

Major upgrades have also been affected on the N1 highway on South Africa’s northern border – the country’s primary road link into the rest of the continent. The construction of the Musina Ring Road will contribute to the broader initiatives to improve facilities at Beitbridge, Zimbabwe – the busiest land entry point into South Africa.

The Moloto Road (R573) upgrade has been identified as a national priority and received a R9.6-billion boost in the stimulus package announced by President Ramaphosa. This is a vital project on a road that links the predominantly rural provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo with the urban economy of Gauteng. The current construction will not only improve the mobility and safety of the 50 000 commuters who travel on this road daily, but also facilitate easier access to the attractions that are located further away from major routes.

Construction also continues on several priority projects that will benefit communities in all nine provinces and attract investment into the broader local economies. The new Hopefield Interchange and the upgrading of the Tierfontein sections of the N7 will provide improved mobility for communities in the Western Cape. Near Kimberley in the Northern Cape, the upgrading of vital intersections on the N12 However, broader economic development requires more than just the implementation and management of construction projects. The standards of engineering and design in the construction industry must be raised to ensure the creation of a transportation network that will sustain the economy of the future.

Bursaries, internships and investments in education are required to produce the next generation of engineers, artisans and skilled professionals in the fields of science and mathematics.

An excellent example of this is the Technical Excellence Academy in East London. Established by SANRAL, this academy enables graduate engineers to gain experience on construction projects and bridges the gap between the academic and professional environments. In addition to this, commitments must be made to unlock opportunities for those who were denied them in the past. Partnerships should be formed between established companies and emerging enterprises owned by black South Africans, women and youth. These partnerships will give SMMEs easier access to equipment, materials and professional advice, which will enable them to tender on larger road construction projects.

The accelerated implementation of the NDP and the boost in funding outlined in the NPI emphasise the critical role of infrastructure in driving economic growth. Ongoing investment in world-class road infrastructure will, no doubt, contribute to a balanced growth trajectory.

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