#231 The Strategic importance of October Transport Month has never been this acute

Let’s hope that with the economic recovery plan tabled, his office will piece together the Department’s direct contributions toward the recovery plan, to close Transport Month on an integrated high note, big dreams, and certainty at a truly strategic level. 

TIME TAKES A TOLL: The Rustenburg Rapid Transport programme, Yarona, took a long time negotiating with the local taxi associations, and other stakeholders within the value chain. This long time, should prove worthwhile because the inclusion of the minibus taxi industry is at the heart of the Public Transport Strategy of 2007– on paper. In practice this could be fluffed around, but essentially, these BRT projects are flagship pilots of how the industry can be transformed– one of the options, not the whole basket. These projects are relatively small compared to high-speed rail. More-so, South Africa is part of broader transport network on a continental level. The issues of public transport, rail infrastructure and all are consistent all over. A major concern is whether the strategic focus is as evident as it should be, or if we are in such silos that our Ministries operate in parallel, duplicating over integrating. Projects as small as the RRT needed a lot of integration, at local level, now imagine how hard a national project is.

Humour clouded the air when President Cyril Ramaphosa contended that an Africa-wide high-speed rail network is part of South Africa’s future. When the 4th Industrial Revolution was a bulldozed the mainstream discourse, it seemed implausible and severely unjust if the transition occurs in haste. Penning for the Brookings Institute, he outlined the multidisciplinary approach to leap frogging toward a country of digital citizens where digitisation is set to displace some jobs and create new ones to the tune of 1.2% net-gains in jobs, or 1.2 million by 2030. Continentally, the impact of digitisation as an opportunity comes with significant considerations, applications, and efforts to truly understand how the formal and informal economies can become part of this trajectory. However, as the pandemic smoke clears, infrastructure investment, industrialisation and the digital age stand so tall that the status quo looks like rubble. 

Whether it is a shift toward a green economy, incentivising industrialisation or investment in infrastructure, digitisation will play a crucial role. But in practice, there will be ridicule and cynicism stirring tempers given the depth and breadth of decisions and actions necessary, against a volatile political backdrop. The complexity of the policy decisions necessary for transitions toward complex projects in transport, and digitisation will require advanced and integrated statistical tools to support evidence-based policy making. Just last week (13 October) president Sahle-Work Zewde, of Ethiopia, placed emphasis on a need to modernise and reform the methodologies and rigour embedded in Africa’s data and statistics, specifically for this purpose. Our presidentput it squarely that “our success rests on the political will of governments, on being prepared to take risks, and on striking a balance between innovation and regulation”.

It is of utmost importance that South Africa realises that the track toward high-speed rail is part of the continental journey—a small part of a network infrastructure investment programme the African Regional Transport Infrastructure Network (ARTIN). This programme involves over 12 000km of rail infrastructure construction worth over $40bn. Just as the digital trajectory is connected to the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030), the strategic position of South Africa’s projects and programmes need to take a continental tone if we are set to flourish, not only survive. 

Transport and digitisation are inextricably related because they are both conduits for goods, people and land-uses; and information, services and systems, respectively. The more efficient, or greater the economies of scale, or lower cost per person or ton, or unit of data, the better, easier, the activities and transactions flow. Sustainable development is the goal here, but as Jeffrey Sachs describes as an effort with techno-economic, earth systems, social dynamics and geopolitical sub-systems that are so deeply interrelated that they can’t be disentangled or ignored. This is the basis of a green transition—a shift toward lower carbon economies involves a shift in technologies, more renewable energy, increased transport energy efficiencies, and significant paradigm shifts from strategy to implementation.  

Sameh Wahba once outlined that Africa, has a small window to get things right. If not, then we could be locked-in to a cycle of cumulative policy habits that eat opportunity off the plate before it reaches the people. Hence the role of Africa’s free trade agreement, and sigle aviation market are such crucial programmes with significant implications for South Africa. Integrated infrastructure, institutional and financing programmes are an expensive, time consuming and complex pre-requisite. 

At a strategic level, the conversation around transportation should be leaning into SA’s role as champion of the African Union’s work, whilst grappling with domestic development and reforms. This is both for confidence within and beyond our borders—especially if industrialisation is the direction the continent is leaning towards.

October Transport Month out of focus

The launch of October Transport Month relied on following-up from last year’s focus on road safety, and this year’s focus on celebrating road infrastructure projects. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be reminded that the White Paper on National Transport Policy focuses explicitly on integration, coordination and seamlessness. 

The National Department of Transport should be concerned with both the hard infrastructure and the institutional infrastructure necessary to propel the strategic mandate toward economic recovery and sustainable development in a digital world. More specifically, how South Africa’s transport trajectory plugs into the continental journey, and how it confronts transport inequalities; failures in integrated transport planning; and reforming freight and passenger transport beyond the National Transport Master Plan.

At national level, genuinely strategic issues should dominate the discourse: the ministry’s mandate, key performance indicators, and the progress made thus far—between 2007 and now. Pronouncements would reflect on Jeff Radebe’s logistics strategy, multidimensional transport lekgotla, and rail revitalisation initiatives. Perhaps it would have described how the Public Transport Strategy of 2007 aimed to transform the taxi industry from Taxi Recapitalisation to Transport Operating Companies; prioritise non-motorised transport infrastructure; and build institutional capacity in this direction. Then highlight how the DoT’s proposals for the future of the taxi industry interact with the previous efforts, and where the big picture is beyond “subsidisation”. 

Inter-ministerial strategic direction

Given the sub-systems involved in sustainable development, transport has a role to play in almost every ministry—ample room for one message. This month is about presenting policy certainty to the country, Africa and the rest of the world with regard to the strategic direction the state is moving toward in terms of transport. Transport’s role in redressing the structural issues embedded in our economy is a critical point, but it meant pulling from the Energy Ministry’s strategic focus on renewables, and reforming the Basic Fuel Price model (by accounting for logistics efficiencies at ports). 

It meant, leaning into Public Enterprises and their efforts toward exploring the marketisation of ports. In addition, pulling from the National Planning Commission and National Treasury’s explorations around reforming railways and introducing competition. Even pulling on Environmental Affairs who outlined the impact of shifting from road to rail, and the intermodal infrastructure related needs. Beneath all of these would be extracts from Human Settlements, Trade Industry and Competition and many other ministries who contribute and impact the transport sector—directly or indirectly. 

Although the DoT’s Annual Performance Plans from 2019/20 and 2020/21 lean in to policies, programmes and initiatives that deserve a long mention—reflecting the efforts of the staff working the passage-ways of Tshwane’s Head Quarters. Whether it is their focus on efficient and integrated infrastructure networks; safety and security; rural access and mobility; public transport reform; job creation; or environmental protection, the DoT has a challenging mandate. Transport month, in my view should be about highlighting this path inter-ministerially—strategic integrated planning for the transport sector. 

The Minister’s speech launching this year’s transport month did not take us from where we came from, to how far have we come, and where do we need to go as a nation to avoid being locked-in to the past-two-decade’s traps. This would include our role in Africa’s transport infrastructure journey; transport and digitisation; and confronting the structural issues we face. If the transport discourse does not plug into the supply chains attached to industrialisation, tourism and labour absorption in passenger and freight movement, then policy certainty will be shaky.

Let’s hope that with the economic recovery plan tabled, his office will piece together the Department’s direct contributions toward the recovery plan, to close Transport Month on an integrated high note, big dreams, and certainty at a truly strategic level. 

This article was originally featured on Fin24, on the 21st October 2020, titled: “SA’s hopes for high-speed rail must be an African journey”. Coincidentally, on the 26th of October 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote about getting South Africa moving, with a focus on public transport investment, reforming the minibus taxi industry, and provincial roads infrastructure. If you’re a frequent reader, you’d know my response to a long awaited strategic point: does it touch the right policy issue? Again, a no, but it is appropriately appealing to the policy issue. Check this week’s article on Fin24 to see why the appeal matters in the policy discourse (it will be here next week).

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