Patel: We are a country under construction

2014-05-11 15:00

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Standing next to a clean, blank whiteboard, a felt-tipped board pen in his hand, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel looks every inch the teacher?–?and his subject is construction.

Patel is one of the driving forces, politically speaking, behind South Africa’s trillion-rand investment in infrastructure.

While President Jacob Zuma or Cabinet ministers often cut the ribbons, open the doors or officially declare the infrastructure projects open, it is Patel and the team of ministers from the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (Picc) who must put the plan into action.

“This is a country in construction site mode,” he says during an interview in his 15th-floor office in Parliament.

“I’m a visual person. The team smiles indulgently when I start eyeing the whiteboard,” he says, explaining his sketching.

Picc was established in June 2011. The next year, the government adopted the National Infrastructure Plan, which provides the blueprint for Picc’s work.

It’s a 40-year plan, but with this week’s election and an inevitable Cabinet reshuffle looming, it’s not clear how long Patel will remain the man with his hand on the tiller.

While others in the Cabinet trod the campaign trail in the months leading up to elections, Patel remained largely behind the scenes.

Last Thursday, however, he was a smart and canny opponent to the DA’s shadow minister of finance, Tim Harris, during a debate at Wits University in Joburg.

He has an excellent reputation among his government colleagues as a hard worker who is more preoccupied with detail than politics.

Patel politely side-steps a question about his own political future.

With or without him, it’s full steam ahead for infrastructure, he says.

“This is a multi-administration plan and isn’t built around a single minister. These are not five-year plans.

“The first 25 years are very carefully mapped out and the next 15 are more flexible. The next administration inherits the template and can make choices within the template.”

The National Treasury has also approved a multiyear capital plan. The plan will also ultimately be guided by legislation: the Infrastructure Development Bill has been passed by both houses of Parliament and is expected to become statutory soon.

A member of Picc told City Press that the minister was a hands-on leader and had put a lot of work into learning and understanding more about infrastructure.

This much is clear when Patel starts talking about the 18 strategic integrated projects (“SIPs”, he scribbles on the whiteboard) that the plan encompasses.

These are designed to group and connect different areas of infrastructure – so while SIP1 is titled “Unlocking the Northern mineral belt”, its proposed tendrils extend further.

Patel says accessing the coal in Limpopo’s Waterberg region means considering the water requirements. “Coal is a very water-intensive process,” he says. But then there’s also energy, roads for trucks, schools and clinics for workers.

“You need an urban development strategy around housing, information and communications technology, because towns will mushroom with the need to send emails?–?he grins at me?–?to City Press.”

“So, to really unlock that mineral wealth and to shift the centre of development requires infrastructure.

“And if we get it right, you suddenly have not just Joburg and Cape Town and Durban as key centres of economic growth.

“States think in silos,” says Patel. “And integration is key.”

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