Ofentse Mokwena | Fixing SA's transport systems beyond the metros

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Transport disadvantage is a complex term to define, but something that is experienced in cities and towns alike.

Think of the former homelands, pollinated by a different spatial-economic profile, and their mobility and access needs simply follow suit.

Such municipalities are hives for populations between 100 000 and 500 000 (maybe 800 000) people, representing some of the most vulnerable and enthusiastic alike.

While the benefits of mega-cities cannot be ignored, the development of medium to small towns shouldn't either. How could the traditionally macro-level structural reforms actually reach a typical local municipality?

A 'change' in transport network industries

In the 2000s, a Public Enterprises report published a future of South Africa's industries and high capital enterprises (SOEs) as the last supper with high financial performance, equity partners, and even Initial Public Offerings for Transnet Ltd and South African Airways (SAA at the time was tied to Swissair until 2002).

A decade would pass and 7 300 km of rail lines had begun crossing bridges for 'possible concessions', 'calls for revitalisation' and eventually the numerous industries in towns they anchored were in some cases swept by road freight, if not closed down.

By 2016, access to the mainline was a prime theme underlying some of the hesitation from potential concessionaires.

PRASA's long distance passenger lines used to connect Johannesburg with Musina, Mahikeng, Nelspruit and East London to Mthatha, and this historic discourse resurfaced in 2018, but appears to have faded as Shosholoza-Meyl and Metrorail gradually dwindled in the SOE's collapse.

The interface between towns and cities, for industry and passenger movement reminds me of Limpopo's strategic path in this regard. The province's 2018-2020 strategic response to transport confronts two streams: efficient, competitive and responsive infrastructure networks that harness logistics and transport economies; and comprehensive rural development through investment in greater access to public services and public transport particularly in rural areas.

This week's call for comments on 'The Contribution of SOEs to Vision 2030' brings a strategic conversation back, but this time gearing towns for industry, regional mobility and access could be transformative but the coordination and planning officials need to be prepared.

Integrated rural-urban development

Some 47% of the population resides in medium to small sized towns and sparse settlements, the same settlements which host the majority of the branch lines mentioned earlier. 2050 forecasts in the National Spatial Development Framework estimate that the population will rise by 40%, to 75 million, and most will be 'urban-based', while 30% will live below the Minimum Living Level.

The Integrated Urban Development Framework was not only a policy document, but read like an ode to reintegrating urban and rural development through their interrelated strengths.

Although the forecasts lead with the assumption that urban areas will continue to attract rural-to-urban migration, there is reason to enable the type of development which weakens this trend.

Medium to small sized towns and settlements are territories with urban characteristics and traditional laws, land claims and capacity limits for unearthing, nurturing and attracting talent that is both aware of the political environment and has the technical skills to bring new ideas to life.

Residents easily, fantasise about leaving these towns with little intent to return, while some express their heritage by working to build these former homelands against the odds. It's a deep conflict between attracting opportunities, access to them, and incentives to induce decentralisation, so there's naturally a gradual disintegration in some areas; and an enthusiastic rise in others.

How these towns are designed and planned for in the next 30 years could describe the level of well-being they could host. The battle is for the 30% who live below the Minimum Living Level, where will they be in 2050 and how can that chance be reduced?

Targeting low base and high impact provinces

There was a point in time when rural district municipalities were earmarked for catalytic development. This initiated the process of solar energy, mining, road infrastructure and industrial development zoning efforts in parts of our country with the lowest incomes.

It's the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, Free State and Northern Cape provinces which are experiencing the infrastructure, industry, mobility and access conundrum.

Although they have unique endowments, some commonalities are the GDP-per capita base, and thus the highest potential for rapid economic development with significant impact. The spatial profile of Lebowakgomo, Mokopane and Mahikeng are different from Ermelo, Klerksdorp, and Upington – but the gaps between townships and CBDs can be mended as quickly as viable industries for continental and global distribution are pivoted. Settlements like Rustenburg, Kimberly and Polokwane, have significant potential for development, but the underlying mobility, access and logistics constraints connecting them potential markets could be better.

These medium to small cities and towns cannot afford traffic congestion, high road freight volumes, or a lack of suitable non-motorised transport infrastructure. Some endure road freight movement pressures that inflate road maintenance cost, and eat into the town's efficiencies.

Others have underutilised airports or airstrips awaiting credible investment and business plans. The economic returns on regional mobility by air or railways is a notable catalyst for decentralisation and economic distribution—with cost and externality savings. However, the economic development of these towns is not only a product of passenger movement, but instead it's hinged on viable local industries.

Transport and industry drive development

Transport infrastructure untangles industrial constraints for converting the primary into secondary phases of the economic value chain. Between the raw materials and works in progress on the manufacturing line is industry. Industrial investment is a mix of good ideas and better processes, coupled with the knowledge and talent base to put it all together.

Some of the knots tie transport modes together through infrastructure to shift consignments between various transport modes and minimise costs. By so doing, the logistics between the primary and secondary phases work. This is what makes Tambo Springs and Dube Trade Port such significant logistics centres, and similar logistics hubs can be derived from industrial efforts with turn-key deals right at the door in these medium to small towns.

A strategic puppeteer dances to an interplay between industrial development and economic efficiency. Each step on this tightrope hangs the economic reorientation of a province and municipal level access to opportunities in some shaky balance. A bi-product of this line of reasoning has been the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) emerging on the fringes of Africa's transition toward adding greater value to raw materials through manufacturing, technology and high-value services.

To be realistic, the impact of SEZs stretches from a few years of construction, and a decade of production—but each of these industrial nodes need education, residential and recreational ecosystems. Beyond breaking ground, SEZs could be one of the golden tickets to structural reforms outside of Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape—especially for emerging out of this recession. Towns outside of these major metropolitan provinces should be encouraged and enabled to nurture local talent and harness intra-regional development. This places a different type of pressure on transport planning and coordination officials at the municipalities.

Transport planning at municipal level

Integrated Transport Planning (ITP) is a highly outsourced activity in the transport sector, particularly at municipal level. A R104.5m was allocated for ITP in 2020, before the pandemic. Officials at municipal level have a role to play in actively engaging with how planning is translated into practice. This persistence is key because it incentivises sector specific committees and working groups at municipal level, which aim to foster coordinated and informed transport development.

Municipalities are the direct contact points between national goals, provincial budgets and service delivery. Devolving functions to local or district level municipal officials to take the baton for implementing the transport plans in their municipalities is part and parcel of transport and local government policy statements. Some metros have stridden forward, with transport authorities and policy papers to devolving rail transport functions.

But implementation at the medium to smaller municipalities who have access to some branch lines, economic zones and require urgent reform should not lag behind. At a national level the discourse may focus on strategic reforms, but at the local level, where service is delivered, municipal officials should be geared and capacitated to execute the finer details. Then again, there is what should be, and what is, but perhaps it will change.  

 Ofentse Mokwena is a transport economist, lecturer, researcher and podcast host. Views expressed are his own.

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