The global best practices to mimic to ensure SA infrastructure drive delivers results

22 December 2020

Simon Norton – International Zinc Association, Africa Desk 

If South Africa is to have any hope of economic recovery, no sector of the economy can afford to do things the way it did before 2020 or as was done in the past.

That’s as true for the civil engineering and construction industry as it is for any other sector. Not going “back to the way things were” doesn’t just mean relooking at supply chains, staffing and winning new contracts. It means thinking with sustainability and longevity in mind, prioritising long-term gains over short-term profit and understanding that focusing on high standards and excellence in the present will reap large future dividends.

Easier said than done, which is why it is useful to look further afield to learn from our global neighbours on what works, how it works and how to change course if it doesn’t work.

Global best practice: Long-term thinking 

Much of our collective time, energy and resources are spent on “patching” our infrastructure, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem which would be mainly the use of cheap materials, substandard contractors and the government tender system.

Public infrastructure serves as a focused example of how long-term thinking could save money, create jobs and deliver a better outcome overall in South Africa. If we were to vigorously promote and require in government tenders that, where appropriate, all steel used for infrastructure projects be galvanised, then we’re thinking long term. Galvanised steel structures can give a lifespan of over 50 years in the right environment and offer exceptional performance at the coast. Hot dip galvanising is only marginally more costly at the outset, but the savings in terms of long-term maintenance-free service are exceptional.

If we can get to a point where our public infrastructure lasts longer than at present and requires far less maintenance, the focus can shift to new build projects that will improve the general state of the economy and, by extension, the welfare of South Africans.

Global best practice: Prioritise local 

Over two million jobs were lost in the second quarter of this year in SA and the economy, already struggling prior to the crisis, is now under severe strain. Critically, unemployment is expected to reach an all-time high of 40% in coming months as entire industries face collapse. The country needs a New Deal to get people back to work and to boost GDP rapidly. A local-first approach will be instrumental in achieving this together with a boosted manufacturing drive.

To stimulate a virtuous cycle of capital formation, market stimulation, and job creation, we could turn to our non-ferrous metal mineral wealth but not in its raw unprocessed form. We must increase its value by processing our non-ferrous metal ores into refined material and harvest the rare and highly valued metal by-products that go with it such as gold, silver and germanium.

The construction of a new South African zinc refinery, as just one example, will reduce dependence on SHG zinc imports; will give a much needed boost to the construction, steel and manufacturing industries by offering local supply; boost the secondary zinc industries such as recycling, fertilizer, die casting and tyre making; and create much-needed jobs in both the short and the long term.

Building such a facility will only make it easier to buy local and save on foreign exchange, it will also speed up time of delivery to galvanisers inside SA. Again, this benefits everyone. If South Africans buy local, manufacturers will have more capacity to hire skilled staff. And, where those skills don’t exist, there will be a driver to offer training, resulting in more people in higher-paying jobs. This adds value across the chain and doesn’t just include economic benefits but will also go a long way to creating a more socially cohesive, united country.

Global best practice: Circular solutions

The United Nations projects that the world population will grow to a staggering 8.5 billion people in the next decade. Supporting a global citizenry of this size will necessitate economic development and the expansion of the global economy at an unprecedented scale.

Meeting these needs will place enormous strain on our finite natural resources, which is why thinking in “circles” when it comes to the use of metals and minerals is crucial.

Optimisation in mining, production, product life cycles and recycling need to be a foremost priority. Currently, one of the biggest barriers to greater sustainability is the linear economic model of “take-make-dispose”. It’s key to rethink this model to keep waste out of the system.

One resource that adheres to the “virtuous circle” approach is the versatile and abundantly available zinc. An essential element for all living things and presenting useful metallurgical and chemical properties, zinc features in our daily lives with applications in everything from agriculture and building to wellness and hot-dip galvanising of iron and steel structures.

Zinc can be recycled without losing or compromising any of its metallurgical properties or overall value, meaning it can be used over and over again. Zinc is not only a sustainable option during use, but the recycling thereof also works to reduce concentrate demand, energy use, emissions and reducing waste disposal.

In line with global best practices, South Africa’s infrastructure development efforts needs to take its cue from zinc to find more materials and resources with this “circular” ability.

Global best practice: Shift road freight to rail 

Transnet’s road-to-rail strategy has been on the public enterprise agenda for some 20 years now and has the potential to accelerate SA’s economic recovery, which is why it’s crucial that it should be implemented and acted upon now with no further delay. Furthermore, a project to widen the rail gauge on South African rail links would allow high speed intercity travel and fast goods movement.

The shifting of freight from road to rail has many benefits. Rail transport systems are six times more energy efficient than road, and four times more economical, which further drives the case for a safe, reliable cargo rail system as being fundamental to a country’s economic growth. Shifting from road to rail will obviate the need to spend so much on roads and road repair.

Equally significant, particularly considering the global drive for a sustainable future, is that rail is amongst the most climate-smart transport options. The upgrade and expansion of our rail networks and infrastructure also has the potential to create employment opportunities on a large scale and is now more urgent than ever.

Best practices that offer both an environmental and economic benefit need to be top priority in a country like South Africa which needs to feed its people and offer them a good working life. It is hard to argue against solutions that can guarantee long-term savings because savings mean more available spend on other, much-needed infrastructure projects.

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