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CESA survey shows higher private sector involvement, lower confidence

Home Infrastructure Construction & Civils CESA survey shows higher private sector involvement, lower confidence

BUSINESS confidence remains a pressing concern in South Africa, with Consulting Engineers South Africa’s (CESA) Bi-Annual Economic and Capacity Survey (BECS), for the period of July – December 2023, revealing a 22% decline, reaching a low of 32, the weakest level since 2019. This drop, exacerbated by political uncertainty, corruption, and infrastructural constraints, has continued into the first quarter of 2024, falling to 30.

CESA recently published its latest survey highlighting significant trends and challenges in the engineering and construction sectors for the latter half of 2023. The survey, conducted during a period of moderated global economic growth, underscores critical issues such as business confidence, private sector investment, project cancellations, and consulting fees, presenting a nuanced picture of the industry’s current state and future prospects.

Chris Campbell, CEO of CESA, emphasises the critical role of business confidence in supporting investment growth. “Higher levels of business confidence are crucial for investment growth, regardless of interest rates or financing accessibility. A sustained recovery to a neutral level of 50 or higher is necessary to bolster investment levels,” Campbell says.

Further, project cancellations continue to plague the construction industry, with 41% of respondents reporting tender cancellations in the last six months of 2023, up from 31% in June 2023. The reasons range from economic uncertainties and budget constraints to community interference and skill shortages. The cancellation costs are substantial, impacting earnings across all firm sizes, with smaller firms being the most severely affected.

“Project cancellations have a detrimental impact on the sector, particularly on smaller firms that cannot easily absorb these losses,” Campbell remarks. “It is imperative to address these issues to stabilise the industry and maintain project momentum.”

Despite these challenges, the survey reports an average 7% year-on-year increase in consulting fees in 2023, with a significant 10% growth in the second half of the year. This improvement is largely driven by private sector demand, which saw an 18% increase in fee earnings. However, earnings from national and local government saw a decline, highlighting a dependency on private sector initiatives to sustain growth.

The outlook for the first half of 2024 remains mixed. Larger firms expect earnings to stabilise, while medium-sized firms anticipate a modest increase of 5-7%. Larger firms’ order book-to-income ratio has declined, indicating potential softness in future demand, while medium-sized firms have reported improvements.

The survey also indicates a promising increase in private sector investment, particularly in critical economic infrastructure such as electricity, water, rail, and ports. Fixed investment grew by 4.2% year-on-year in 2023, with the private sector contributing an average of 5% increase over the past two years. In contrast, investment by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) declined by 1.8%, following a significant 8.2% drop in 2022.

Campbell highlights the growing role of the private sector: “The collapse of energy infrastructure, combined with a mounting water crisis, may serve as a catalyst for increased private sector investment. Government must create a more conducive environment for such investments.” This shift is evidenced by the private sector’s increasing involvement in construction works, now accounting for an average of 25% over the last two years, up from less than 10% in 2000.

The findings of BECS underscore the need for sustained investment in South Africa’s critical economic infrastructure. The private sector’s growing involvement is a positive sign, but challenges such as low business confidence, high project cancellation rates, and uneven earnings growth persist.

“The path forward requires a concerted effort from both the public and private sectors to ensure a steady pipeline of projects, fostering job creation and economic stability,” Campbell says. “Our improved outlook suggests increased activity in infrastructure design and planning, but the real challenge lies in executing these projects to drive sustained economic growth.”

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