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The SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral), which is celebrating 25 years of positive impact on our national road network, is always exploring to find new ways in which we can improve our roads so we can reach more people and connect more cities, towns and villages. We do this against a background where infrastructure financing is dwindling and demands on our resources are growing — particularly as we prepare to upgrade several provincial roads that have been added to the national road network.

That is why the theme of this year’s Conference on Asphalt Pavements for Southern Africa (Capsa), “Leading-edge technology to underpin sustainable road provision”, was so important — and more so considering that more than 90% of Sanral’s road network is asphalt/seal (blacktop) surfacing.

Sanral’s mandate is to finance, improve, manage and maintain the national road network, which spans 23,559km and is valued at R420bn, making it one of SA’s most significant infrastructure assets.

The deliberations at Capsa are crucial for SA because of its focus on technical excellence, not only in our country but in Southern Africa too. Too often, conferences such as this are accused of being talk shops, so we are interested in assessing the progress made in implementing resolutions taken at the last Capsa four years ago.

The first resolution taken at the Sun City conference in 2019 related to how the Southern African Bitumen Association (Sabita) could speed up the use of nanotechnology in road construction, especially on gravel roads. We are rolling out pilot projects under the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission Working Group. Its potential benefits go beyond use on gravel roads and on to our highways. We can no longer afford to keep this as a pilot. I call for the full-scale use and adoption of this technology industrywide. The Technical Recommendations for Highways manual 24 (TRH 24) is now available to all practitioners.

The second resolution was for Sabita to develop guidelines for pavement layer bond coats. We are reviewing a report commissioned through Sanral’s eastern region, one of our four such offices. Once approved it will be converted into a manual and formally be presented to the national department of transport’s committee for full adoption by the industry. 

The third resolution was about the need to engage with the Sustainable Roads Forum to facilitate an industrywide conversation on the process to embed sustainability (social, economic and environmental) in the roads industry in SA. It is important to know where our focus is when we talk about sustainability.

The fourth resolution was aimed at fast-tracking sustainability practices within the roads industry. Sabita was tasked with making sure the working group starts trials within road construction and establishes sustainable targets under the three guiding principles (people, planet and profits).

Talking about people, it is important to increase intellectual training and mentorship to sustain the learning and output. We cannot say the youth is our future when we neglect them in the present. We need to look at the neglected youth, those aged between 18 and 24, about 75% of whom are unemployed.

Sanral is investing substantial resources into youth empowerment and education. We are proud that our bursary and scholarship programme benefited 154 tertiary students and 260 high school pupils in the 2022-23 financial year. We also successfully placed 275 interns, against our annual target of 200.

While our bursary programme is focused on civil engineering, we have changed our policy to include students from various disciplines such as accounting, computer science, electrical and electronic engineering, environmental science, human resources, information science, law, mechatronics, quantity surveying and supply chain management.

Furthermore, our Technical Excellence Academy continues to ensure that young engineers can become registered professionals with the Engineering Council of SA. To date, 121 engineers have completed the programme, and a further 53 candidates are still in training.

From an environmental perspective we must reduce the use of water in construction. Water is a critical and increasingly scarce resource — we need look no further than what is currently happening in Gauteng for evidence of this.

I know the reuse of asphalt has now become second nature, which is commendable compared to the past where this valuable material was discarded in landfills. Outstanding results in reusing old concrete in road construction has also been achieved. The road construction industry must now adopt the research results and move towards full implementation. We shouldn’t waste time because it is crucial for the long-term survival of our planet. 

From a profit perspective, we believe it is important for companies to be sustainable and to grow. Small companies must be assisted to develop into bigger businesses and new businesses must be encouraged. This is at the heart of Sanral’s transformation policy and our related community development initiatives. We insist that with each of our contracts at least 30% of the value of the contract must go towards empowering small businesses and local labour.

Sanral recognises that construction companies, big and small, are commercial ventures and therefore must be profitable throughout the value chain. Having said that, the sustainability of our industry, and indeed our country, depends on the empowerment of previously disadvantaged individuals and communities.

The principle behind this philosophy was neatly summed up by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his 2023 state of the nation address, when he urged fellow South Africans to “leave no-one behind”. In fact, this is the central, transformative promise of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its sustainable development goals. 

Sustainability also means reducing our carbon footprint. We do not always have to travel to get the best and strongest materials. We can use local material, which might be substandard but can be improved, and that is the fundamental principle underlying the use of nanotechnology.

In countries such as Australia, sustainability is part of all their tender specifications. They look for that commitment from contractors, which are penalised if they do not achieve sustainability targets set at early tender stages. We must implement such clauses within our tender specifications.

The catastrophic impact of climate change in KwaZulu-Natal in 2021, the Eastern Cape in 2022 and most recently the Western Cape in September 2023, relates to another important resolution from four years ago: how we deal with climate change and its effect on the road construction industry. This was also a major topic of discussion at the 27th World Road Congress in Prague, Czech Republic, earlier this month.

Sanral has embarked on an assessment of our drainage systems, culverts and bridges, to identify those prone to damage during heavy floods. Many of our roads were built to withstand 100-year floods, but we are now experiencing such flooding every second year. That requires our engineers and technical specialists to develop and design a resilient road network that takes the devastating phenomenon of climate change into consideration.

Our role goes beyond building and maintaining national roads. Our transformation policy guides our contributions to the economic transformation of the country and the upliftment of communities, particularly in rural areas. Every road Sanral builds and maintains helps create a better life for people who might not have had this access before and who rely on the state, working together with the private sector, to provide the infrastructure that helps grow our country’s economy.

In the past there were always highways, but they were predominantly in the coastal areas, with few inland roads. Now, with the expansion of the network, this will change because we are increasingly reaching into previously excluded areas.

Demana is CEO of the SA National Roads Agency Ltd. This is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the Conference on Asphalt Pavements for Southern Africa.

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