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Construction workers work on the roof of a new building. File photo: WERNER HILLS
Construction workers work on the roof of a new building. File photo: WERNER HILLS

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2024 state of the nation address (Sona) shed some light on future investments aimed at strengthening the economy and enabling greater opportunity and prosperity for all South Africans. While he offered a more palatable presentation of a difficult reality, there is no denying that the SA landscape is marked by a pressing need for new infrastructure that not only addresses current inadequacies but also anticipates future demands.

The projects the president outlined are critical for economic growth, energy security and fostering environmental stewardship. His foresight was evident in his plans to allow private operators to access the rail network in a bid to overhaul the freight rail system. The decision to invest in port and rail infrastructure is a prudent move.

This “strategic hedging” will yield significant dividends for SA’s economy and its people by providing an alternative route to the Suez Canal, which is currently under fire. Geopolitical Monitor reports that developments in the Middle East, beyond the Israel-Gaza conflict, reflect security challenges that could draw the entire region into an unprecedented conflict spiral that would have serious negative effects beyond the region.

The president also highlighted investment in new transmission lines, which will enable renewable energy projects to integrate with the grid. In addition, creating a climate fund, developing a special economic zone in Boegoebaai port to spur green energy investments and committing to green hydrogen production reflect the government’s dedication to upgrading infrastructure while prioritising sustainability.

I am sure even Ramaphosa’s political adversaries agree with him over one thing: South Africans deserve better infrastructure. However, the recurring challenge of transforming promises into tangible outcomes — on time, within budget and to scope — has been a perennial bugbear of many administrations all over Africa.

The transformation of SA’s infrastructure demands visionary planning and a meticulous approach to project execution. History is replete with examples of global projects that have failed to meet expectations in the absence of rigorous management practices. To avoid the same pitfalls, the government must embark on a comprehensive strategy that emphasises robust project planning, financial prudence, regulatory reform and capacity building.

The build, operate and transfer (BOT) model presents a viable opportunity to leverage private sector expertise, efficiency and capital. However, its success hinges on a foundational element: accountability. In this context, accountability extends beyond financials; it encompasses the assurance of a stable policy environment, transparent regulatory frameworks and adherence to agreed timelines and quality standards.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) represent a critical model for advancing infrastructure projects, offering a means to leverage the strengths of both the public and private sectors. For these partnerships to succeed, especially from the public sector’s perspective, excelling in project management is not just beneficial, it is imperative.

Project management within the context of PPPs demands a strong framework for governance, risk management and stakeholder engagement, ensuring that both the public’s interests and the project’s objectives are aligned and met. Moreover, the public sector’s capability in project management directly affects the confidence of private partners.

Building project management capacity is arguably the linchpin of successful project execution. SA faces a pressing need to enhance local expertise in project management, engineering, and related fields. In its 2023 critical skills list, the department of home affairs put project management as a top scarce skill. To remedy this will require targeted education and training programmes and international partnerships that bring global best practices to the local context.

The education is not just for managing a project’s timeline and budget, it encompasses a broader curriculum designed to instil a deep understanding of strategic planning, risk management, stakeholder engagement and the nuances of PPPs. Given government’s interest in adopting models such as BOT, even public servants must be adept in navigating these arrangements, ensuring that projects meet their objectives and adhere to principles of transparency, accountability and sustainability.

Project management skills extend beyond the successful completion of projects. They are about building a culture of efficiency and continuous improvement within the public sector. By ensuring that civil servants are well versed in project management principles, government is laying the groundwork for a more dynamic and responsive administration capable of adapting to the evolving needs of its citizens.

As SA continues to navigate the challenges of infrastructure development, the focus on building capacity in project management in the country and in government will foster project success. It is through the empowerment of individual South Africans with skills and knowledge that the nation can hope to achieve its ambitious goals, ensuring projects are not just initiated but completed on time, within budget and to the benefit of all.

• Asamani is MD of the Project Management Institute, Sub-Saharan Africa. 

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