The long view

2011-09-13 00:00

THE recent establishment of a powerful Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission to provide leadership to integrated roll-out of essential infrastructure is a major milestone in the government's growing focus on long-term efforts needed to realise economic freedom in our life time, to use the ANC Youth League's slogan. While this will not win President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet much political mileage and even votes, like the establishment of the national planning commission, this initiative, if done well, is an undertaking that history will record as a wise decision.

Chaired by the president, the commission comprises ministers responsible for various kinds of infrastructure development, provincial premiers and executive mayors of metropolitan councils that are also responsible for rolling out major infrastructure projects.

Notable members of the commission include the Minister for Economic Development, which now oversees the work of the Independent Development Corporation that funds huge infrastructure projects linking South Africa and the rest of Africa, as well the Minister of Finance, who oversees the Development Bank for Southern Africa, which manages funding and infrastructure projects in the provinces and neighbouring countries. The Minister of Public Works oversees the work of the Independent Development Trust, which implements major government projects, including infrastructure initiatives on behalf of the government. Ministers for Trade and Industry, Science and Technology and others also have a crucial role in infrastructure development.

Of course, premiers and mayors have a huge responsibility, especially for the roll-out of mobility and communications infrastructure. Urban provinces have serious problems establishing integrated, efficient and economical public-transport systems.

One remembers the problems caused by the canning of an ambitious trams project led by former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa a few years ago because the province had not consulted with national government before clinching a deal with an Indian company. The Gautrain project, which included an underground train and fast overland train services targeting middle classes, proceeded because there had been sufficient consultation. But this wonderful infrastructure is poorly linked with other modes of transport within Gauteng and transport systems in other provinces.

The Gautrain could have been linked to KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape. It is excellent infrastructure, the value of which is limited to the Johannesburg-Pretoria corridor. This demonstrated the challenges that arise when there is poor co-ordination.

More rural provinces have lagged behind in the provision of all forms of infrastructure, from schools and clinics to roads and railways, to Internet and data infrastructure. The commission's primary task is to oversee, monitor and speed up the delivery of infrastructure projects in all parts of the country. It is supported by another powerful committee chaired by Minister of Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti and a secretariat. This makes the commission a special high-powered initiative by the Zuma government. This must be seen as Zuma's contribution to the evolution of a new South Africa in the same way that Thabo Mbeki's economic transformation through BBBEE and African regeneration were, in spite of all misinformation about these initiatives.

Like these flagships, Zuma's initiative can build the basis for long-term change that would in the long run provide the basis for a qualitative change in the lives of the poor and move them closer to economic freedom. But because no political points should be expected from initiatives of this nature, as it is short-term populist initiatives that bring political benefits to politicians, Zuma will need to stay the course and institutionalise this effort.

Mandela's flagship was slightly different in that while nation-building and reconciliation are also done for the long term, they were much easier to understand as beneficial in the here and now. Economic projects of this nature are generally unpopular and their benefits will mostly be seen by the next generation of citizens.

This country will benefit immensely if the commission succeeds in promoting integrated and aligned infrastructure planning across the board. This will enable economic development to take place in a structured way, while it will help make the life of all citizens easier, especially in the areas of transport and communication. It is possible that the commission could stimulate such infrastructure development that would create many job and business opportunities.

This country needs functioning infrastructure, including energy supply, roads and railways, Internet, telecoms, logistics, and others to position itself strategically as an emerging economy and to benefit from a changing global economy. If this works, Zuma will have laid a sound basis for "economic freedom in our lifetime". But citizens must ensure that this initiative does not lose steam due to short-term political imperatives in the coming years.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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