Research Management and Future Freight Transport Planning


Southern African freight transport policy makers face severe challenges to address current problems and to define future priorities. The need to develop holistic, integrated, quantified and costed strategic plans is hampered by the lack of analysis of the transport demands of industry, and the limitations imposed by inadequate research.

All the South African transport policy studies over the past 30 years have been largely inconclusive with highly generalised recommendations due to unavailability or restriction of operational and economic information. The institutional structure of the freight transport modes and the ineffective regulation of both parastatals and the private sector road transport operations results in a continual stream of projects that produce broad prescriptions, and no implementable actions. The situation is aggravated by the lack of researchers with relevant qualifications as well as broad practical experience in road, rail and port operations and the realities of commercial logistics.

After the change of government in 1994 there was large scale retrenchment of skilled and experienced technical and managerial staff from the public sector and to a lesser extent, in the private sector.  Many of the retrenched senior staff took their “package” and invested it or bought property. In many instances the senior experts joined consulting firms and provided their services to the same departments for which they had worked, at inflated salaries. The impacts of the purge of capabilities are becoming increasingly obvious within government departments where officials were “deployed “ into senior positions to replace the previous incumbents, irrespective of whether they had any experience in the specific field of knowledge or activities of the department. Many had no track record of organisational, technical or managerial competence. In many cases these deployees have now climbed to the head of government agencies and departments, resulting in elite policy makers without the benefit of the normal developmental experience of a lifetime of mentoring, but convinced that rank and status are sufficient evidence of ability to succeed and to direct.

The reducing availability of skills is one of the most disturbing phenomena in South Africa, and one that will have long term implications for the future good of the country. It is one of the unfortunate and possibly irreversible results of the affirmative and empowerment strategies that have been used in attempts to engineer “equality” in government and industry. The process has resulted in the deployment of numbers of dubiously competent managerial staff with imposing titles such Director or, Chief Director.

In the civil service the presence and example of senior management of this calibre results in plans that lack cohesion and without a base of technical knowledge or focused and quantified research. The lack of key performance indicators, managerial pressure and performance monitoring, also results in staff inertia. This has contributed to the deplorable track record of the government departments in the fields of education, agriculture, transport, home affairs, health, etc. and the dismal management of municipalities, parastatals and quangos. In some areas the retention of a tertiary level of experienced technical staff, as in the private sector and some parastatals, has masked the impacts of the dubious managerial structures. As these staff members retire or leave, the situation will worsen, as the numbers of really competent and experienced replacements are reducing steadily and the present education system does not supply sufficient competent graduates to fill the skill and experience gaps.

In the promotion of “gender equality” many departments have been staffed with articulate, lady “directors” with degrees, but minimal technical or managerial knowledge or experience of the business of agriculture, transport, health, trade etc that they are to “direct”. In this case the situation is often worse, as they have no one from whom they can learn, but are still allowed to exercise their “right “to command. This lack of technical and managerial competence is particularly evident in relation to research and project management. The lack of competent decision making and managerial control means that a large proportion of government research, policy formulation, and the provision of infrastructure is being mismanaged and many projects of all forms do not result in quality outcomes.

A recent Sunday paper advertisement covered 26 vacancies for officials, a total of R21 million per year with the top jobs going at over R1.0 million p.a. It is significant that the particular discipline has the most lamentable record of inadequate research and resulting inability to understand the fundamentals of the farming business, or contribute to sensible development strategies for the sector.

Depressing as this present situation may be, the real danger is that unless some action is taken, the effects will continue to be experienced into the foreseeable future. The whole hierarchy of staff that report to the present management are receiving minimal competent development in the disciplines, skills, knowledge and experience of the real world, nor learning anything about best practise of government in relation to their field of work. This does not augur well for the future economic performance and governance of the country.

The situation is partially compensated by the use of professional consultants, but for research and scientific projects it is unfortunately true that the usefulness of research outcomes is directly related to the definition of the problem, the scope of the investigation, the skill and experience of the researchers, the impartiality of the research, incisive evaluation of its relevance and completeness and whether it provides sufficient practicable guidelines for  implementation of the recommendations.

The present environment where departmental staff define the objective, appoint their preferred consultants, suggest the desired outcome and then meddle with the research process cannot yield objective results. In order to appear to be involved in the project process, it has become normal for department managers to create complex committee structures and impose a lot of time and budget wasting project impediments. The numbers of meetings, lunches, presentations, nomination of unsuitable appointees, interventions, and irrelevant peripheral conditions demanded, cause many projects to just slither into inconclusive stagnation. The resulting reports are often incomplete and therefore useless. In many cases the failure to properly define the Terms of Reference (or to try to manipulate them after awarding the contract) results in cost over-runs or rather performance under-runs as the budget gets frittered away by irrelevancies. In many cases where investigation of parastatals or government departments is involved, research is also hampered by the immediate closing of ranks, obstruction and secrecy, to protect the status quo.

The growing situation in South Africa where most of the commercial, managerial and technical skills are found in the private sector, but utility provision, policy formulation and supply of infrastructure are in the public sector, is having a negative impact on the economy. The quality and quantity of scientific research has reduced in most disciplines over the past 10 years.  The lack of government support for professional, quantifiable research is resulting in decision making without facts. A further disturbing trend is the award of projects that are primarily designed to suit the aspirations of departments, parastatals, and quangos, without showing any evidence of appreciation for the fact that commercial and industrial decisions are taken in the private sector. This trend is evident in relation to issues such as agricultural reform, industrial training, water management, transport legislation, high speed trains, pipelines, investment attraction, port and freight rail developments, transport policy, energy planning, border delays, housing projects and soccer stadiums.

The overemphasis on provision of infrastructure is the result of a lack of competent operational and economic research to identify current inefficiencies and establish quantified needs. Lack of holistic analysis of the costs and benefits to be obtained from each investment results in the creation of more infrastructure to serve fundamentally inefficient transport systems, without addressing the managerial, institutional and operational problems that are the cause of the inefficiency.  All too often, when research results reveal deficiencies or contradict the need for proposed expenditure, the results are suppressed or ignored, and sometimes the messenger is marginalised. A visible result of the above mentioned problems is the chasm between the needs of the real economy and the band-standing announcements of government mega projects that will if implemented, cost the country multi-billions of Rands, without addressing the real priorities and problems in almost all sectors.

On the one hand, business owners and managers pursue the goals of survival, profit and growth and on the other, the, lack of quantified research leads to political rhetoric, denial of problems, and unrealistic perceptions of priorities. In most cases the proposed source and availability of the funds to implement the announced developments are not calculated or revealed as it is assumed that there will always be enough money to spend and that the nebulous stated benefits will materialise. This process has so far given us a legacy of airports, ports, refineries, stadiums and rail developments that contribute little to solving the major issues facing the South African economy. The downside has been the restriction on investment in manufacturing, freight rail, port modernisation, dam construction, and passenger transport and border facilities.

There are growing numbers of freight transport infrastructure and operational developments in neighbouring countries motivated and driven by the private sector and supported by state aided foreign investors, with deliberate intentions to circumvent South Africa. The present approach to the future of freight transportation in South Africa is fragmented, restricted, subjective, and often implausible, and  if not urgently addressed there is every likelihood of continuation of the current  “delivery failures”. Once the neighbours have alternative transport options, South African export industries will face the challenge of more competitive logistics as well as undercutting by Eastern imported goods in the region, the only markets where we have a currently favourable balance of trade.

The present national economic trajectory of de-industrialisation, limitations to agriculture, reducing mining development and the parlous state of the parastatal utilities, water and energy bode ill for the future unless some urgent objective research is done to quantify the future national planning process, and this is particularly evident in transport.




Nick Porée

SAFTI [1-6-2011]