OPINION | Neglected Rural Infrastructure: A Critical Oversight in South Africa’s State of the Nation Address

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While commendable efforts were highlighted in various sectors by President Ramaphosa in his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 8 February 2024, there was a glaring omission: the dire state of rural infrastructure, particularly in provinces like the Eastern Cape.

Despite strides in economic reform, healthcare, and crime prevention, the lack of focus on addressing rural areas' fundamental issues, such as inadequate road networks and access to clean tap water, underscores a significant oversight in the government’s agenda. 

One of the most pressing challenges confronting rural communities is the deplorable condition of roads. Shockingly, only 10% of roads in the Eastern Cape are paved, leaving the majority of inhabitants to navigate treacherous gravel roads that are often impassable, particularly during bad weather conditions.

These inadequate road networks hinder access to essential services like healthcare and education and impede economic development by limiting the transportation of goods and access to markets. Moreover, the poor road infrastructure contributes to the isolation and marginalisation of rural communities, exacerbating socio-economic disparities. 

In addition to the dire state of roads, the lack of access to clean tap water remains a persistent challenge in many rural areas. Despite progress made in improving access to water resources, significant disparities persist, with rural communities bearing the brunt of inadequate infrastructure.

The absence of clean tap water in the rural communities of Hlankomo, from Mdeni to Upper Tsitsana in the Joe Gqabi district municipality, poses serious health risks, leading to waterborne diseases and sanitation-related illnesses and perpetuating social and economic inequality. Without access to safe drinking water, rural residents are forced to rely on contaminated sources, further perpetuating a cycle of poverty and illness. 

The neglect of rural infrastructure in South Africa's development agenda is not merely an oversight but a failure to address millions of citizens’ basic needs and rights. The lack of adequate roads and access to clean tap water disproportionately affects rural communities, perpetuating cycles of poverty, marginalisation, and underdevelopment.

As the government boosts economic growth and social progress, it must prioritize investments in rural infrastructure to ensure inclusive development and equitable access to opportunities for all South Africans.  A comprehensive strategy is required to address the urgent needs of rural communities, particularly in the Eastern Cape. This includes:

  1. Investment in Road Infrastructure: The government must allocate resources to pave gravel roads, improve maintenance, and expand road networks in rural areas, particularly in regions like the Eastern Cape. Enhanced road infrastructure will facilitate access to essential services, promote economic development, and alleviate social isolation. 
  2. Expansion of Water Infrastructure: Efforts to increase access to clean tap water must be intensified, with a focus on rural areas where disparities are most pronounced. This includes investment in water treatment facilities, boreholes, and pipelines to ensure reliable and safe water supply to rural communities. 
  3. Community Engagement and Empowerment: Meaningful engagement with rural communities is essential to identify specific needs, priorities, and solutions. Empowering local residents through participatory decision-making processes and capacity-building initiatives will enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of infrastructure projects. 
  4. Monitoring and Accountability: The government must establish robust monitoring mechanisms to track progress and ensure accountability in the implementation of rural infrastructure projects. Transparency and accountability are critical to addressing systemic challenges and delivering tangible improvements in rural areas. 

Therefore, addressing the neglect of rural infrastructure is a matter of social justice and a prerequisite for sustainable development and nation-building in South Africa. As the government formulates policies and allocates resources, it must prioritise the needs of rural communities, particularly in regions like the Eastern Cape, where inadequate roads and lack of tap water perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequality.

By investing in rural infrastructure, South Africa can realise its vision of inclusive growth, social cohesion, and a better future for all its citizens.

Dr Siyabulela Fobosi, Senior Researcher at the University of Fort Hare UNESO Oliver Tambo Chair of Human Rights.