Improving rural infrastructure, bridging divides and connecting communities

Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala said they are investing billions in rural bridges over the next three years. Picture: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala said they are investing billions in rural bridges over the next three years. Picture: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 7, 2024


By Sihle Zikalala

Delivering his inauguration address on May 10, 1994, founding President Nelson Mandela enjoined the newly found democratic state to create a caring, people-centred society that heals the divisions of the past. Madiba declared, “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us”.

Madiba’s government inherited a social infrastructure that was generally in a poor state, poorly located, under-maintained and not geared to serve a growing population and a modern, transforming economy.

Before 1994, infrastructure expenditure supported the development of infrastructure for a privileged minority which contributed to the deep levels of poverty and inequality. In line with the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), the ANC-led government was determined to reverse apartheid social planning which neglected rural development and rural infrastructure.

Since 1994, our government has been inspired by the vision and goal of building, inch by inch, brick by brick, a new society that is founded on the constitutional values of human dignity, equality, non-racialism, and non-sexism.

Working together, Vision 2030 of the National Development Plan enjoins all of us to forge a social compact that will build an integrated and inclusive rural economy. It’s a call to create a thriving rural economy which can help arrest unplanned, rapid urbanisation which puts a burden on the stretched services in the urban areas.

The Welisizwe Rural Bridges Programme was gazetted in July 2020 as a Strategic Integrated Project (SIP) No 25 as part of the Infrastructure Development Stimulus Package to eliminate the dangers associated with river crossings, improve mobility, boost the economy, and create jobs.

During the State of the Nation Address in 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa mandated the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) to work with the Department of Defence - given its engineering skills, experience, and capacity - to construct 96 low-cost bridges per financial year from April 2022.

In the 2023 State of the Nation Address, the President again emphasised the importance of improving rural infrastructure and announced that government is forging ahead with the construction of Welisizwe Rural Bridges Programme to improve mobility of communities in rural areas, enhance safety, especially during flooding, and contribute to job creation.

In line with the Sona commitment, on May 23 last year, we announced in the Budget Vote of the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure that R3.8 billion had been budgeted for the programme for the entire Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF).

In the 2023/24 financial year, 96 bridges are being built in six provinces at a cost of R1.1bn. During the 2023/24 financial year to 2025/26 financial year, the plan is to deliver 48 bridges in each of the six participating provinces, totalling 288 bridges by end of 2025/2026 financial year.

The total job opportunities expected to be created in all the six provinces for 96 bridges in one financial year is 384 Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) participants and 480 artisans. Through public employment programmes like the Expanded Public Works Programme, our government has been able to cushion the vulnerable poor in our villages and townships, while delivering important services and socio-economic infrastructure.

A number of engineering graduates who are past beneficiaries of financial support for their university studies are also participating in the construction of the Welisizwe Bridges. In order to support enterprise development and localisation, construction material is sourced from local suppliers.

On January 31 last year, no less than four completed bridges were handed over to communities in the Umzinyathi District Municipality and Umgungundlovu District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal that was addressed by President Ramaphosa. It was an event that affirmed that government is leaving no one behind and that it cares about the safety of children travelling to schools, communities journeying to access economic opportunities, healthcare services, and government services.

From the faces of thousands of people who gathered at Ngilanyoni in Mkhambathini, we witnessed a fulfilment of Vision 2030 in the NDP which in part says by 2030, we will have built a South Africa where:

“We feel loved, respected and cared for at home and in community.

We feel understood.

We feel needed.

We feel informed.

We feel healthy.

We feel safe.”

It is a South Africa where we can say:

“Through our service we show our solidarity.

We enjoy the same quality of service.

We are connected through our caring.

The welfare of each of us is the welfare of all.

Our homes, neighbourhoods, villages, towns, and cities are safe and filled with laughter.

The faces of our children tell of the future we have crafted.”

The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure has answered the call to serve. In 2024, the department will be handing over many more Welisizwe Bridges to rural communities in provinces like the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Free State, and the Northern Cape.

Despite the stubborn legacy of apartheid and underdevelopment, each day we see South Africans working together to build a South Africa of their dreams and proclaiming that our country remains alive with possibility. Indeed, the time to build is upon all of us!

*Zikalala is Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL