A range of competing priorities
One key area receiving particular attention is the urban transportation system, which has seen remarkable improvements over the past five years. In part, this is related to the development of a Bus Rapid Transit system in a number of key urban areas such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Tshwane. At the same time, Prasa Metrorail (South Africa's biggest commuter rail service) is planning to upgrade and replace their entire rolling stock to increase efficiency and safety. And while many people still choose to take the faster and more flexible private taxis, many urban governments are actively working to promote mass transit as a more sustainable solution to urban transportation challenges.
Social infrastructure such as hospitals and schools are also in the spotlight. South Africa has a large and dynamic private hospital system that, while effective, is often out of reach of poorer citizens. Recognizing the deteriorating state of the public hospital sector, the National and Provincial Departments of Health has outlined a plan to expand and rebuild the public health facilities to bring up the standard of care within a structure that is affordable to the mass population.
Making progress on power
Of course, much has also been made of the country's troubled electricity grid and generation capacity which has resulted in widespread rolling blackouts on a number of occasions. And while the national power authority (Eskom) is making progress on its New Build Program (which envisions some 16,000 MW added to the grid by 2017), they have also negotiated deals with many of the country's largest power users to ensure that consumers retain a secure service until more generating capacity can be brought online. A comprehensive Integrated Resource Plan has been finalized and published which sets out the generation strategy for the next 20 odd years.
Advantage South Africa
Integrating and funding such massive urban infrastructure projects is certainly a challenge for South Africa's municipalities. But they do enjoy a number of significant advantages over their peers across the rest of the continent. For one, the country's financial system is very healthy and sophisticated and has not suffered from the same liquidity challenges still haunting both rich countries and poor.
The country also has a long history of structuring and executing successful Private Public Partnerships (PPPs). Indeed - where they make financial sense, transfer risk and improve affordability - PPPs tend to be the preferred choice for the National Treasury.
Still blowing the vuvuzela
South Africa's hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup certainly acted as a catalyst to urban infrastructure renewal. But, rather than fizzle out after the final whistle was blown, the country has used the event as a trigger to release a significant amount of infrastructure renewal, particularly in areas that support economic growth.
But change on this scale is somewhat unprecedented in South Africa's cities, so the next five to ten years will be a real test of their ability to see projects through the development and operational lifecycles. For now, however, the signs are all very promising.