/Ralph Mathekga: What potholes teaches us about South Africa

Ralph Mathekga: What potholes teaches us about South Africa

2020-01-07 09:22

Our decisions regarding when to intervene in resolving problems in our society are driven by the needs of service providers, and not necessarily the need to roll out services efficiently and at less cost. We have allowed problems at Eskom and other areas to become crisis before we can intervene simply because crisis response benefits service providers, writes Ralph Mathekga

What’s in a pothole?

Not very much, except for an empty space showing what used to be a patch of the road. In the last few years I’ve studied potholes in my neighbourhood very intensely. Now that it is the rainy season, potholes have surfaced again, usually in similar spots where I’ve seen them for the past few years. Those are what I call recurrent potholes; appearing exactly in the same place at the same time of the year for the past few years.

I have observed the life of a pothole, and I humbly wish to share my findings.

Before sharing my findings, let me make it clear from the onset that I am not trying to score a tender in fixing potholes.

I would want to fix those potholes on my street one day as part of my civic duty, once I establish if the law allows for that because one never knows how things are going to go with the ANC back on the saddle in the City of Joburg.

The ANC-led administration in Joburg might criminalise volunteer work simply because that would undercut tenderpreneurs. This brings me to the key findings of my study of portholes.

Potholes always appear in the same place every year. In most cases, potholes start very small and grow over a period. Potholes widen and deepen in the first few weeks and they stop growing after two months or so after reaching about a meter in diameter.

I realised that with a normal light vehicle, traffic intensity and some occasional rain during the rainy season, a pothole will gradually grow from a 20 centimetre wide hole to one meter in about two months.

Residents often fill up the potholes with debris from construction bricks and so forth, making sure that the holes do not become too deep and widen. Motorists volunteer to fill up the potholes just so to avoid losing one more tyre.

Now that we know that much about potholes, what lessons do we learn?

The average time it takes for a pothole to be repaired by professionals since its emergence is approximately two months.

Given that many potholes would occur in the same place as they appeared in the previous year, we have a clear sense as to where potholes would emerge on the road.

This also means that most potholes could be professionally filled up while they are a 20cm wide hole; before they widen four times that. Thus, most potholes could be repaired at a lower cost while they are smaller.

I am not a road engineer, but it is common sense to me that fixing a smaller pothole would require a small volume of material and would cost less than fixing a wider deeper pothole.

Fixing a bigger pothole would certainly be more costly in terms of time and material than fixing a smaller one. It appears to me that the potholes are monitored ONLY to ensure that they are of the correct (bigger) size before service providers are called to fix them.

While this does not make sense as far as efficiency in provision of public services is concerned, the idea of allowing a problem to become bigger before attempting to resolve it seems to be the preferred approach in the provision of public services in the current South Africa.

In South Africa, the problem should grow bigger before it can be resolved, just so it can be dealt with as a crisis. This attitude goes beyond potholes and is evident in many other areas of development.

Our decisions regarding when to intervene in resolving problems in our society are driven by the needs of service providers, and not necessarily the need to roll out services efficiently and at less cost. We have allowed problems at Eskom and other areas to become crisis before we can intervene simply because crisis response benefits service providers.

Ours is a service provider driven development; where we wait for our challenges to get to a point where resolving them will guarantee maximum returns for service providers while overburdening the taxpayer with a hefty bill and problems that never go away permanently.

Our problems are also approached in a way that they will recur. This approach does not allow for the prevention of problems or for resolving issues while they are less costly. Which tenderpreneur would jump in to fill up a 20cm pothole if you can wait for it to become a two meter hole?

We are building an inherently inefficient system which benefits only service providers while harming our economy and our general well-being. Inefficiency has become very profitable for some.

This is how a nation has become complicit in vandalising its own resources, and most of us are in on it, sadly.

– Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.

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