Bridges of size

Controversial Sanral CEO Nazir Alli has retired, to be succeeded by former fellow board member Skhumbuzo Macozoma. As a welcoming gift,  John Clarke offers a story for him to ponder …

Australians take huge pride in the Sydney Harbour Bridge for its design – and because it is so huge. Bill Bryson in his book Down Under describes the structure: “From a distance it has a kind of gallant restraint, majestic but not assertive, but up close it is all might. It soars above you, so high that you could pass a ten-storey building beneath it, and looks like the heaviest thing on earth. Everything that is in it – the stone blocks in its four towers, the latticework of girders, the metal plates, the six-million rivets (with heads like halved apples) – is the biggest of its type you have ever seen... This is a great bridge.”

The bridge finally opened on 19  March 1932. At 505 metres, it was aiming to become the largest single- span-arch bridge in the world. Alas, just before the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon, Bryson wryly records that “the Bayonne bridge in New York quietly opened and was found to be 6.35cm – 0.121% longer.”

This story is told mainly for the benefit of Mr Skhumbuzo Macozoma, the man appointed to take charge of the South African National Roads Agency Ltd, (Sanral) to replace its long-serving founder-CEO, Nazir Alli. 

Sanral has not enjoyed a happy relationship with civil society for the last decade of Alli’s long tenure. He believes that Bishop Geoff Davies of SAFCEI (Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute), Wayne Duvenage of Outa (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse) and I, John Clarke, are largely to blame for the alienation. “Beneficiaries of the unearned dividend of apartheid” is how he groups us. 

Ten years ago I tried to engage Nazir Alli in a dialogue around our respective visions of development, hoping we could find common ground over his plans to shorten the N2 route via a shortcut along the Wild Coast. We were hoping to persuade Sanral to just move the alignment more inland, away from its numerous deep and wide (and pristine) coastal ravines, away from the rich titanium deposits in the Xolobeni mineral sands, and away from the Msikaba Vulture Colony. 

By the end of the conversation we were on first-name terms. He said his door was always open. Alas it soon became apparent that his mind remained firmly shut.  Not only against the idea of moving the alignment inland (which would have obviated the need for the mega bridge crossings over the Msikaba and Mtentu river gorgesthat will cost billions of rands), but shut to any perspective that challenged or contradicted his dogmatic, top-down, technology driven, money-measured, “bigger is better” approach to development.

Our engagement soon turned into a protracted email confrontation. Still, he refused to hear what we were advocating.  Confrontation has now soured into adversarial hostility. 

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when I recently received a Sanral PowerPoint presentation which tries to “sell” the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road as “not just a road project, but a catalyst for other development”. It assiduously avoids any mention of the Xolobeni Mineral Sands “development” (see noses94; 116; 158; 195; 199 & 201).  For years Alli has protested (too much?) that there is no connection. 

Sanral’s Wild Coast road project glories in its two mega bridges. 

At 580m the span of the Msikaba bridge beats the Sydney Harbour Bridge by 74m. But the total deck length of the Mtentu Bridge falls 16m short of that bridge. It is only 1,133m.

Artist's impression of the proposed Mtentu bridge compared to the dystopian Hillbrow Tower and Ponte City

To give a sense of comparative scale, it would have been clever to superimpose the Sydney Harbour Bridge over the two Wild Coast mega structures.  They are in the same league. Moreover, the Wild Coast bridges are much more beautiful than the giant “Coat Hanger” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Instead Sanral “scales” their designs by superimposing the Hillbrow Tower and the Ponte “Vodacom” skyscrapers in the presentation.

There is irony in their choice of these two structures as a reference. Both symbolise the worst of 1970s urban architecture, an era when higher and bigger was assumed to be better, when today they are seen as brutally dehumanising displays of power and excess and the sort of technology driven hubris first encountered with the allegory of the Tower of Babel. 

They betray a wholly inappropriate mindset, totally out of character with the amaMpondo Cultural Heritage Landscape that last month was named as one of “South Africa’s Top Ten Endangered Heritage Sites”.

The humane face of engineering: the Mzamba footbridge

Sustaining the Wild Coast chairperson, Margie Pretorius, has written to Macozoma inviting him to “walk the Wild Coast,” to reflect again on what “development” really means, and how state resources really can serve people. If he accepts, we will commence the walk at the Mzamba footbridge, immediately below where Sanral plans to build the first of nine bridges along the 96km “green fields” section.

If one contrasts the Sanral mega- bridges with the Mzamba footbridge, incommensurability of the two development paradigms is stark. 

Whereas the Sanral development philosophy under Alli’s tenure was “bigger is better”, technology driven, money measured, elitist and efficient, the human scale development model that underlies the Mzamba footbridge is gut, people-centred, needs-based and ecologically sensitive. My mentor, Professor Manfred Max-Neef, explains it on YouTube - see video, “Manfred Max-Neef explains the Human Needs Matrix”.

I bear Alli no malice. He has tried so hard to get these mega bridges built but all he has to show is a growing polarisation and an increasingly unbridgeable chasm between Sanral and civil society. I weep for him. I hope in his retirement he will finally come to understand the power of love will always triumph over the love of power. I hope even more that his departure will now allow Sanral’s vast technological prowess and engineering brilliance to be harnessed to build many more bridges like the Mzamba footbridge that serves the real needs of the people of the Pondo Hills.

That project shows that money is necessary and has its place, but only when beneficiaries are respected as active partcipants in the development process. Development is about people, not about objects. 

The Mzamba footbridge cost approximately R5 million, including the costing of donated time of volunteers and the management time of Marlene Wagner and colleagues from the NGO Build Collective, who designed, constructed and managed the project with a local steering committee. (See Facebook page Bridging Mzamba.)

Artist's impression of the proposed Msikaba bridge

Divide R5m into the estimated R2.5 billion mega bridge bill and one could comfortably afford to build 500 similar footbridges, far more than needed.  Instead of making another new big environmental footprint, why not simply use the existing footprint and upgrade rural roads in partnership with the people?

Ultimately it is not so much about the amount of money, or the volume of traffic as it is about the quality of community life that results. That can only happen when technology is placed at the service of the other two members of the World Survival Trinity: nature and people. 

Seen that way, Sanral's N2 Wild Coast Toll Road plan is obscene and absurd.

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