The high cost of ignoring the invisible, unsexy stuff

Issued by John Steenhuisen – DA Leader
28 Apr 2022 in News

President Ramaphosa was quick to pin the KZN flood disaster on climate change. And yes, that is certainly part of the problem. But while it may be a convenient scapegoat, climate change is certainly not the only issue here.

We need to be clear about what caused the enormous damage, so that next time a freak storm brings large amounts of rain to the KZN coast, we are better prepared to deal with it.

Because there will be a next time. There have been at least six significant floods in eThekwini in the past six years, including a catastrophic flood in 2019 where 85 people lost their lives.

So it’s a matter of when, not if.

Every time there were floods in eThekwini, experts warned about the state of the metro’s stormwater drainage and about settlements located on flood plains. These warnings were not heeded.

It is the responsibility of a local government to make sure that its communities are shielded from the worst effects of such floods by making cities and towns flood-resilient.

This means giving town planners and engineers the full backing and budget to build this resilience into communities through proper housing planning and infrastructure.

It also means that the local government must do its actual job when it comes to things like stormwater maintenance. Fix what is broken, clear what is blocked, and replace what is old and crumbling.

This may sound simple enough, but there is a fundamental flaw to the ANC-in-government that prevents it from investing properly in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.

These things are “invisible” services. Unsexy stuff. There is no ribbon-cutting ceremony for unblocking a sewer. These aren’t legacy projects to which a politician can attach his or her name.

This part of the job is unglamorous, budget-thirsty and thankless. Which is precisely why an elected government should do it. You choose this job to serve, not to collect praise and plaudits.

But there is not a single ANC local, provincial or national government that operates by this ethos. They’ll invite the media to the unveiling of a toilet. Waste millions on a second-rate sports track with a rickety pavilion as long as it can bear someone’s name. Spend precious public money on overpriced, ill-conceived vanity projects.

But they will happily let the invisible things go to rot. Things like storm water systems and waste water treatment plants.

This is why ANC-run towns have raw sewerage flowing down the streets. It’s why up to a third of Eskom’s generation capacity is permanently unavailable. It’s why the stormwater in eThekwini had nowhere to go but through people’s homes and businesses. And it’s why effluent washing into rivers in KZN hindered efforts to provide clean water in tankers to communities cut off from supply.

Maintenance of infrastructure is just not a priority where the ANC governs because there’s nothing in it for them.

Compare this to DA-run metros.

In their recent State of the City Addresses, DA mayors in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Cape Town announced big investments in the maintenance and expansion of infrastructure.

The City of Johannesburg will be investing R2.8 billion over the next three financial years to improve the city’s water services infrastructure.

In Ekurhuleni, the City is planning a major expansion of its electricity backbone infrastructure which includes many kilometers of new cable and the refurbishment of equipment. The City is also well ahead of its financial year target to maintain stormwater drains.

And in Cape Town the Mayor announced a capital expenditure budget of R8 billion, plus several billion more for the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

While DA metros spend at least 6% of budget on infrastructure, ANC metros spend just 2-3%.

The recently-release Green Drop report shows that of South Africa’s 850 wastewater treatment systems, only 22 are in excellent condition with over half of these being in the Western Cape.

DA governments understand not only the benefit of investing in infrastructure, but also the cost of not doing so. KZN just paid a very high cost in human lives, but there are other costs too.

When crumbling infrastructure and a lack of basic services make running a business untenable, they pack up and leave. The former employees of the Clover factory in Lichtenburg are suffering the consequences of government ignoring the invisible, unsexy stuff.

In eThekwini, Toyota had to scrap 4000 new cars at its Prospecton factory due to flood damage. They know that part of this was preventable, just as they know that last year’s riots were preventable. Toyota represents the single biggest investment in the metro and they’re a precious source of jobs, but they won’t stick around forever.

If government cannot hold up its end of the deal, these big employers will simply leave, taking those jobs with them.

DA governments build, fix and maintain the invisible, unsexy things without being begged or threatened. They think and plan and act on a far longer timeframe than just a five-year political term.

By investing in the boring, invisible, unsexy stuff, DA governments ensure not only long-term access to water, electricity and jobs. They also protect communities from the worst possible consequences of disasters.

At the same time, the DA’s Energy Policy maps out the fastest route to a low-carbon future, so that South Africa can play its part in keeping disruptive climate effects to a minimum.

These are the things voters should consider when they place their mark on the ballot paper in the next national election in 2024.