Bridging the divide between Sanral and Civil Society

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Since Sanral CEO Nazir Alli announced his retirement in August last year, the Sanral Board has finally settled on Skhumbuzo Macozoma to take over. He first appeared in the pages of Sanral’s Annual Reports as a board member in 2006. Let’s not speculate why it took so long to name a successor when the person was there all the time. I give him the benefit of the doubt and offer him another story to ponder as he acclimatises.

Australians vest pride in the Sydney Harbour Bridge for its design and vital statistics. If they knew what lay beneath the surface and back in history they would be prouder still.

Bill Bryson in his book Down Under describes the bridge;

“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.”

sydney bridge schematic


sydney bridge

The bridge finally opened on 19th 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 humorously writes “the Bayonne bridge in New York quietly opened and was found to be 6.35 cm’s – 0.121% longer.”

The story as to why the Chief Engineer Dr John ‘Job Crew’ Bradfield was pipped at the pylon becomes a trifle apocryphal. I heard it some years ago in a sermon by a visiting Australian Catholic Priest.

He said the completion of the bridge may well have been still further delayed had someone not had a shift of paradigm - which led to a shift of concrete.

Apparently the engineering team was stumped by the discovery of a massive sunken barge full of old concrete just at the spot where one of the supporting pylons needed to be firmly entrenched. No amount of jack-hammering and blasting could dislodge the obstacle. Then someone had a bright idea: massive pontoons were constructed, chains were strapped to them and divers went down at low Spring tide to fasten them to mountings previously drilled into the barge. They waited nervously for the tide to turn, hoping ‘Nature’ would rescue the £ 6,25 million scheme.

It did.

Effortlessly She lifted the heavy barge off the sea bed to be floated out of the way so that abutments to support the 39,000 tonne steel arch could be firmly founded on proverbial rock, such that no storm, wind or other powerful force could threaten the structural integrity of the bridge.

Each hour 160 trains, 6000 vehicles and 40,000 pedestrians can commute across the harbour.

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, to replace the long serving founder CEO Nazir Alli.

Sanral has not enjoyed a happy relationship with Civil Society for the last decade of Nazir Alli’s long tenure. Nazir seems to believe that SAFCEI’s Bishop Geoff Davies, OUTA’s Wayne Duvenage and yours truly that are 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 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 short cut along the Wild Coast. We were hoping to persuade Sanral to just move the alignment more inland, well away from the rich titanium deposits in Xolobeni mineral sands, and away from the Msikaba Vulture Colony.

sanral shortcuts

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 Mzikaba and Mtentu river gorges), 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 (see


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, “not just a Road Project, but a catalyst for other development”. It assiduously avoids any mention of the Xolobeni Mineral Sands ‘development’. For years Nazir has protested (too much?) that there is no ontological connection.

The project still pivots around the two mega bridges.

msikaba bridge

At 580 meters the span of the Msikaba bridge beats the Sydney Harbour bridge by 74 meters.

mtentu bridge

But the total deck length of the Mtentu bridge falls 16 meters short of that bridge. It is only 1,133 meters.

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 famous giant ‘Coat hanger’, as the Sydney Harbour Bridge is called. Instead Sanral ‘scales’ their designs by superimposing the Hillbrow Tower and the Ponte 'Vodacom' Skyscrapers in the presentation.

gorge comparison

gorge comparison 2

The Hillbrow Tower and Ponte building have become symbols of a bad urban gestalt. To use these buildings to help ‘sell’ the Wild Coast Mega bridges speaks of an “obscene urban triumphalism”, as one my friends observed. They betray a wholly inappropriate mindset, totally out of character with the amaMpondo Cultural Heritage Landscape that last month was named as one the “Top Ten Endangered Heritage sites.

Read here: Our vanishing heritage

Sustaining the Wild Coast chair Ms Margie Pretorius has written to Mr Macozoma to invite him to come and ‘walk the Wild Coast’, to reflect again on what ‘development’ really means, and how State resources really can serve people.

If he comes we will commence the walk at the Mzamba footbridge, immediately below where Sanral plans to build the first of nine bridges along the 96 km ‘green fields’ section.

mzamba footbridge

If one contrasts the Sanral Mega bridges with the Mzamba footbridge incommensurability of the two development paradigms becomes stark.

Whereas the Sanral development 'scale' under Nazir’s tenure was 'bigger is better', technology driven, money measured, elitist, efficient and transactional, the Human Scale Development paradigm that subscribes the Mzamba footbridge is endogenous, people centred, needs based, ecologically sensitive, synergistic and transformational.

Watch here: My mentor Professor Manfred Max Neef explains

Mazamba collage

I bear Nazir no personal 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. But bridges that scratch the real itch, like the Mzamba footbridge.

That project shows that money is necessary and has its place, but only if transactions are subordinated to real transformations in human power relations: when beneficiaries are respected as active protagonists of the development process. Development is about people, not about objects.

The Mzamba footbridge cost approximately R5 million, including the costing of donated time 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)

Divide R5 million into the R2.5 Billion Mega Bridge bill and one could comfortably afford to build 5,000,000 similar foot bridges, 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 not about the quantum 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 Humanity.


From that perspective, the N2 Wild Coast Toll road is obscenely absurd.


An edited version of the above article appeared in the November 2016 edition of NoseWeek (Nose 205).  Titled Bridges of Size.

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (, the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute ( and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (, in various ways.