City of gold or city of old? Joburg’s crumbling infrastructure points to chronic neglect

Some of the most important arteries linking the city of Joburg’s road network are in poor condition due to years of non-maintenance.

The recent collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Jeppestown (property of Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) where two people got injured while walking on it highlighted the fragile condition many of the bridges in Joburg are in.

Earlier in the year transport MMC Kenny Kunene said that “the City of Johannesburg’s bridges are crumbling and there is no money to fix them.” This is after The Citizen reported that 90% of the City’s bridges were in poor condition as tabled in the 2021/22 Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA) annual report. In addition, the Bridge Visual Condition Assessment (VCA) conducted in the 2016/17 financial year found that 78.4% out of the 902 bridges that were inspected were in deplorable condition.

Several factors contribute to the current state of bridges in Joburg, but this also paints a grim picture of years of neglect by the city.

The city saw an influx of people in its early days as people rushed to seek opportunities in this mining town founded in the 1880s. This 137-year-old city has never stopped growing since the discovery of gold and now accommodates 6.1 million people, it needs functional infrastructure more than ever.

For a city to grow it needs infrastructure that will enable and support growth. Well-maintained infrastructure such as bridges and roads fosters economic development and enhances the provision of basic services. Bridges are the backbone of transport routes that get people to and from work and contribute to the city’s economy.

“The lack of infrastructure maintenance, corruption in which dodgy black economic empowerment companies have been gifted tenders and often build flimsy infrastructure and cadre deployees without the necessary technical skills who have poorly looked after public assets have now snowballed into the breakdown of the entire public infrastructure.”

Professor William gumede

An age old problem

Administrations have come and gone but the question remains, why are our bridges not maintained? Could it be that the City of Johannesburg doesn’t have money to spend on fixing bridges or poor governance?

Concerns over ageing road infrastructure (particularly bridges) are not new. Road infrastructure includes bridges, lights (traffic and street), surface roads, drains and railways. Bridges play an integral part in connecting the city’s roads and people to its seven regions.

In 2018 the Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA) revealed that only six percent of the city’s bridges were in good condition. Former city of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba was alerted to ageing infrastructure that is on the brink of collapse by engineers this is as the city’s bridges are over 60 years old. Mashaba has reportedly indicated that the city has been under spending on infrastructure since 1994 which has resulted in the R170 billion infrastructure backlog in the city of Johannesburg. According to Mashaba, “the maximum that has been spent on repairs was two percent and national treasury expects maintenance and repairs expenditure to be between eight and ten percent.”

In the past 10 years the city had its fair share of collapsing bridges i.e., Hendrik Potgieter Road bridge and the Grayston Drive bridge in 2015 and 2022 respectively, leaving two people dead and 19 injured.

The Hendrik Potgieter Road Bridge in Roodepoort collapsed in December 2022 following flash floods that damaged it. The bridge lies on a road that connects Krugersdorp and Johannesburg; the site remains closed.

A bridge that was in its construction phase to link Sandton and the neighbouring Alexandra township collapsed in 2015. Sandton Chronicle reported that the Grayston Drive bridge was initiated by the Joburg Development Agency and the City of Joburg after a traffic and transport study was conducted in the area to reduce travel times and accidents.

The irony is the said bridge aimed to reduce “accidents”, however, it resulted in an accident. A section 32 inquiry was set up by the labour department to investigate the collapse of the bridge. The investigation found that incompetence, negligence, and missing bolts were factors that contributed to the collapse of the bridge. 

JRA claims to conduct regular monitoring and maintenance of their bridges, however, the situation on the ground paints a different picture.

In the 2016/17 financial year, JRA through its Roads Asset Management Systems Unit (RAMS) identified 68 bridges that need to be rehabilitated. As part of JRA’s ongoing programme to ensure effective structural and asset management and maintenance these bridges needed to be fixed in order to avoid a total collapse. The assessment found that majority of the bridges were over 50 years.

Professor William Gumede from Wits University’s School of Governance says, “the lack of infrastructure maintenance, corruption in which dodgy black economic empowerment companies have been gifted tenders and often build flimsy infrastructure and cadre deployees without the necessary technical skills who have poorly looked after public assets have now snowballed into the breakdown of the entire public infrastructure – causing a system failure.”

“This means South Africans will begin to see the rapid collapse of infrastructure, the damage from disasters will be multiplied and the cost of repairs will now be more than building new infrastructure. South Africa’s public rail, roads and state infrastructure have been totally captured at almost all levels – policies have been corrupted, contracts have been given to unqualified politically connected “BEE” contractors and incompetent cadres have been appointed to manage critical assets,” he continued.

To address the City’s infrastructure challenges and to restore its image as a “world class city” it would need a complete refurbishment.

Impact on communities

Joburg’s unmaintained and deteriorating bridges are constantly putting the communities that surround them and road users alike at risk.

Communities living near “poor conditioned bridges” have been raising their safety concerns. Safety concerns for these communities are not the only thing they are worried about other aspects include business and free movement.

Collapsed or decaying bridges make travelling on them not safe therefore communities have to use alternative routes to get around increasing travelling time and diverting customers from businesses.

One such community affected is the Bryanston community that lives near the Belgrave bridge. This low-lying bridge crosses the Braamfontein Spruit – a river that runs through greater Johannesburg’s suburbs until it joins the Jukskei River.

With every rainy season, the bridge floods making the road impassable. Cars have often driven off the bridge into the spruit thus making the bridge unsafe.

When we visited the area in October 2023, we observed that the concrete bollards placed on the side of the bridge to prevent cars from driving off the bridge were damaged.

Ian Tumiel, chairperson of the Bryanston East Community Forum confirmed to Wits Vuvuzela that the bridge has been an issue of concern for quite some time and the community has been vocal about it. 

Relaying the concerns about the bridge Tumiel says, “A new bridge has to be built. JRA has submitted plans for a new bridge and an environmental assessment has been carried out. Since the plans were shown to the community circa [in] 2018/2019 nothing further has taken place. Residents have been involved in the discussions at all times regarding the design of the new bridge. Since the last communication more than a year ago no further information has been provided by the Project Management company nor JRA.”

A collapse of a bridge means that the community is cut off essentially disrupting people’s lives. In 2020 a vehicular bridge in Kilburn, Roodepoort collapsed as a result of a storm.

Following the collapse of the bridge four years ago Ward 84 Councilor Johannes Goosen says, “There was little done to ensure the safety of the surrounding communities other than concrete blocks that were cordoning off the area.” This action gravely put the lives of the community in danger, explained Goosen.

The Kilburn route provided access to surrounding businesses and schools in the area and since the closure of the road businesses have suffered as a result. Asked what impact the closure has on the community Goosen said it affects the surrounding business with divergence of customers and lessening of foot traffic. Increased Traffic flow and usage by trucks etcetera through other streets in the residential suburbs are issues affecting the community.”

Essentially the entire community from businesses, residents and motorists were negatively affected by the collapse of the bridge.

Infrastructure maintenance and development

Professor Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane from Wits’ School of Architecture and Planning says, “It would take a combination of factors to destroy a brand [image] of a city and maybe we are going in that direction in the City of Johannesburg because it’s not only road infrastructure [bridges] that’s collapsing its many other forms of infrastructure. The “world class” aspect of it is being contested largely because certain aspects are not quite there.”

A “world class city” is characterized by but not limited to functional infrastructure [bridges, roads, buildings etc, that are in relatively good condition] and urban development. The collapse of bridges suggests that the city’s bridges are not functional or first for purpose.

According to the Development Bank of Southern Africa road infrastructure plays a critical role in South Africa’s economy. It makes it possible to transport goods and services, but it also enables movement for people, enhancing productivity within the economy therefore there needs to be adequate infrastructure. 

This is no different to Johannesburg its poor road infrastructure will have an influence on service delivery, this is as the roads in their current state do not support the movement of goods and services. The Citizen reported in 2018 that in a survey conducted in 2017, 3 900 km of the road network fell into the poor, or very poor, condition.

The expected increased congestion on affected roads was expected to affect the local economy, as well as tourism.

Congestion on affected roads will increase costs and travel time for businesses and commuters. Some businesses will move out of the city as business costs mount. The economy of the city will be negatively affected as businesses contribute towards the economy; investors will also not be attracted to the city because of its poor infrastructure.

R14 billion is needed to rehabilitate the City’s bridges this is according to the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) which is an entity of CoJ responsible for the design, repair, maintenance and development of Johannesburg’s Road network and stormwater infrastructure.

With the deteriorating Joburg bridges the JRA requires more money than they are allocated to adequately repair and rehabilitate all bridges. This will ensure that the bridges maintain their structural integrity to avoid bridge failures.

The JRA manages a total of 1 592 structures which are classified as bridges including major and lesser culverts.

Bertha Peters-Scheepers, JRA’s communication operations manager told Wits Vuvuzela that for the current 2023/24 financial year the agency has been allocated R389 million to fix damaged bridges and culvert structures [often used in the channelling of water over a road]. She added that the allocated budget is insufficient to carry out the work.

To tackle the 100-year-old infrastructure the bridge rehabilitation programme was introduced in 2014 as a way of restoring, repairing, and maintaining bridge infrastructures alongside the VCA.

JRA will be embarking on a bridge rehabilitation programme at R389 million – bridges that have been earmarked for the work include Maphumulo, Buccleuch, Pierre Road, West, Cedar, Modderfontien and Canterbury amongst others. Additionally, we are also attending to damages caused by the December 2022 flash floods, said Peters-Scheepers.

The Maphumulo bridge culvert (which channels the Klip River) connects the two communities of Zola and Jabulani in Soweto. It got damaged in 2017/2018. The collapse had bad consequences for the two communities as they were now divided and could not move with ease from one end of the community to the other.

Much like the Maphumulo bridge, the Buccleuch bridge crosses the Jukskei River connecting the communities of Sandton and Midrand.

The bridges JRA earmarked for rehabilitation are mostly used by vehicles, but they also accommodate foot traffic. A lot of these communities rely on them to move between the areas.

To avoid another Grayston Drive bridge incident, Amanuel Gebremeskel CEO of the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction says that “bridge construction should be able to match SANRAL’s standard which he deems to be good.” According to Gebremeskel SANRAL has the best bridge conditions in terms of its guidelines.

He alludes that SANRAL does a better job at managing and building bridges than the city.

“Engineers and clients (those commissioning for bridges to be built) need to take into account different factors that go into the construction of bridges such as how will it be used and for how long, and the kinds of material to be used [steel and concrete],” explained Gebremeskel.

FEATURED IMAGE: A bridge that is on the brink of collapse in Selby, Johannesburg a couple of meters away from Standard Bank. Photo: Sbongile Molambo