Alternative construction techniques create jobs in South Africa

It has long been recognized in South Africa that the government construction sector is an area with extensive potential to encourage the creation of new employment opportunities. In 2013 alone, the total expenditure on new construction by the public sector was R133 billion, which was 5.1% of South Africa’s GDP in that year. This was part of the rationale for establishing the extended public works program (EPWP), which has managed to create 4.071 million job opportunities in its second phase (2009-2014).

However, despite the apparent success of this program, there have been some worrying figures with regards to employment creation in South Africa in the public construction sector. For instance, in a report commissioned by the ILO and EPWP looking at road building, it was found that EPWP projects had an average labour intensity rate of 11.1% for road building, compared to the international norm of 30% to 50% for similar projects. A different study looking at school buildings had a similar finding, indicating that for a typical Department of Public Works school in Limpopo, only 14% of the project cost was spent on labour. This study showed that by changing the roof design to a tiled vault, it would be possible to raise the percentage of project cost spent on labour to 43.7%, while the overall cost of the tiled vault school was considerably less than that of the standard Limpopo DPW school.

What this indicates is that there is a major need to reconsider how we build public buildings and public infrastructure in South Africa in order to capture the full labour-creation potential of this sector. In this regard, there are two notable examples that demonstrate a possible way forward. The first is the Ocean View Mountain View Housing Project, a 543-unit subsidy housing development built partially out of sandstone in Ocean View, which lies about a 45-minutes drive from Cape Town city centre. The genesis for innovation in this project started when the project manager received a quote of around R6 million to transport leftover sandstone from a previous bulk earthwork project. Her decision was rather to find ways to use the sandstone as a building material, and to use the R6 million to train approximately 30 community members in the art of stonemasonry. Thus far, 17 people have completed the training and are continuing to work as stonemasons. This project not only created opportunities for permanent employment, but also enabled a superior housing unit to be delivered when compared to a typical subsidy house.

The second is that of the Gundo Lashu road building program in Limpopo. While the goals of this project were fairly standard – to improve the quality of roads in Limpopo – the real innovation lies in the secondary goal of training 24 local contractors in road building and in generating 1 million workdays of employment. To do this, each contractor was given a section of road ranging from 4-15 km in length on a contract basis, which is short enough not to overwhelm a small contractor, but long enough to provide substantial experience and income for the contractor. In total the project exceeded its goals, creating 1.3 million workdays of employment, and in addition to the 24 contractors, a further 23 professionals were trained in supervision and management of labour intensive road building. Importantly, the costs of this project were comparable to that of conventional machine intensive labour construction.

What these projects show is that it is possible within the South African context to have labour intensive construction without considerably elevating the costs of the overall project. Given South Africa’s current broad unemployment rate of 35.8%, it is critical that we begin to properly tap into the job creating potential of the public construction sector.


Stuart Denoon-Stevens is a professional planner, a junior lecturer at the University of the Free State, and a researcher focusing on municipal land management, with a particular emphasis on pro-poor approaches.

Photo: Show houses at the Ocean View Mountain View Housing Project in Cape Town. Source: Houniet 2014.

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