LAST year a group of us went to Durban to watch the July Handicap. We decided to go by train, what the hell. On the surface everything was okay, it was a fun crowd. In the dining car people from all walks of life gathered at 7pm (meals on trains and boats are always at 7pm) to eat and drink. We had nowhere to go and quite a party developed as we clickety-clicked our way down to the coast ... we should do this more often, everyone said, Cape Town is next! It wasn’t exactly the Blue Train but the compartments were clean and adequate.
I woke up to the no train-track noise of early morning, hoping I hadn’t missed the breakfast that was to be served just before we were due to roll into Durban station. But we weren’t going anywhere, and that wasn’t the Pietermaritzburg hillside I was looking out on. The train was stopped about 400m outside the remains of what once was Lions River station.
After some initial false assurances we were finally told the truth — the train had broken down. I wandered towards the locomotive to find a man with an overall pulled hastily over his train driver clothes, on his haunches at the base of this massive, normally powerful machine, one or two of his tools lying loose next to an obviously well-used tool box.
"Wat makeer?" I asked.
"Nee Meneer, hierdie ding is alweer gevok, dit gebeer nou dikwels."
He was actually trying to fix it himself. I was really worried he’d be electrocuted but he seemed on familiar ground and assured me that sometimes he can fix it — "Otherwise we’re going nowhere, Meneer."
We were stuck, so we wondered about the place waiting for the promised Spoornet buses that were on their way to fetch us. What we saw was a ghost station. Except for the main rail line (which our train was now blocking) the rest of the tracks were rusted and overgrown. There wasn’t a single surviving window pane (or railway employee) in what used to be the station. The station master’s house was now the central point of a growing squatter camp. This hadn’t happened overnight — this kind of neglect takes about 20 years. Decay moves in small, almost indiscernible steps. Steps of acceptance. Like any disease. Like any bad habit.
No big deal, I suppose. We can all do without Lions River station. In the end no Spoornet busses came, we hired private transport to come and fetch us from Durban.
So that was there, then, in the veldt.
Now I’m at home, in Johannesburg. We haven’t had street lights on our street for about a month now. Of course I’ve complained. Who hasn’t endured the 086 number journey through a municipal complaints department? We’ve all got stories of irregular garbage collection, electricity outages, potholes — declining suburban "used to take them for granted" services. In a rare moment of brightness they recently repainted the street names on our pavements. Yay, thank you.
Infrastructural decay takes a while to set in, but when you can actually see it, the first stitch has already become nine. The real invisible hand of economic prosperity is maintenance, not repair. When you do the due diligence of any company with plant and machinery, the first thing you check is the maintenance expenditure — is it up to date, have they spent the hard bucks? In South Africa we haven’t.
We can’t just hang around and wait for things to break before we fix them. For the most part I travel the same streets of Johannesburg twice a day and I’m afraid that nowadays there are just one or two more traffic lights on hold, just another missing manhole cover, just another piece of suburban veld where once a tidy pavement stood. When do a couple of spots become a rash? When can we appoint a Minister of Infrastructure?
So what could we do about it?
What about, in a perfect future world, we would have this top-tech infrastructure decay centre. A control room filled with lights and beeps and gauges, monitoring the ever-advancing threat of infrastructure decay — as you might a developing plague from an escaped virus? Up-to-the minute reports, warnings of approaching dangers — like drinking-water purity, or pothole density quotients, or even overdue maintenance checks. A bit like the states of preparedness for war, a panel would move from a green light, regular pulse (Stellenbosch: Devcon 0) to a red light screeching alarm (Carolina: Devcon 3). At some predetermined severity indicator a decay prevention unit would be dispatched to deal with the problem. Okay, that’s just in the movies.
Of course there are some things that have to stay centralised: water, electricity, sewerage, hospitals ... maybe not. Many private models have proved more effective around the world. Our problem isn’t money, it’s spending it on time and in the right place. There seem to be just too many incomplete processes, too many decision blockages.
I had an old gas supply line replaced (by the municipality, last week) but they refused to repave what they had dug up in my garden ... "not our department". What was I to do — start another 086 adventure or get it fixed myself? I fixed it.
I think we need to deal with the problem in bite-size chunks. I think we need to take our suburbs back. Give us a choice: we could hire existing municipal assets, skills and infrastructure to fix and maintain, if they’re competitive, or we could employ our own private-sector services. We’ve already had to do it for security, why not maintenance?
So, Mr Taxman, give us some of our money back and we’ll fix it ourselves.
• Barnes has spent 30 years in finance and markets.