The N-Word

On any given Sunday at a braai fire somewhere between Agulhas and Zeerust an oke, having had just enough rum and coke will stop moaning about the Springboks and declare: “South Africa’s roads are *****d!” At this signal, all the other rum and coke philosophers will confirm this and then tell their own road horror story. It’s all very entertaining and very predictable, and usually very far from the truth. Let’s try and establish some facts.

Fact 1

SA’s national and provincial roads (N and R routes) are in good shape. SANRAL and the toll concessionaries take care of them. The Zero Carbon Charge team has travelled over 110 000km on N and R routes in 2022 in search of charging station sites. That’s more or less what most long-haul truck drivers log in a year and the team’s experience is positive. In general, the roads are fine. Some sections have badly deteriorated, but they are a tiny percentage. Maintenance and repairs are ongoing, not enough for most of us unless, of course, we have to wait 10 minutes at a stop-and-go. For more info on this aspect check this BusinessTech article.

Fact 2

Roads in most small towns are in a poor state. These roads are not the responsibility of SANRAL. They are the responsibility of town councils, which are failing to maintain their roads. (Again BusinessTech)

Fact 3

SA has a superior road network

The CIA World Factbook

Nigeria Egypt New Zealand Sweden South Africa
Paved Roads 60 000 48 000 61 000 140 000 158 000
GDP rank 31st 33rd 51st 25th 39th
Area (km2) 923 768 1 002 450 270 467 450 295 1 240 192
Paved road per area (km2) 0.06 0.05 0.23 0.31 0.13
Area relative to SA 74% 81% 22% 36% 100%

From the above table, we can see what every intelligent person has always known: South Africa has one leg in the first world and one leg in the third world. Any objective person can see that while certain things in SA are failing, others are in pretty good nick, and the national road system is one of them. Let this figure sink in:

158000 km of paved roads.

Now do the maths. That is 100 times the distance between Johannesburg and Cape Town … on paved roads. It’ll take you three months to travel that distance. It’s 40 times the length of the equator.

The national routes in South Africa are all this article will concern itself with. The N-Routes make up only 13 000km of the 158000. That’s only 8%, but a critical 8%.

According to Wikipedia the N-Route system was modeled on the United States Interstate Highway network, a road system that is directly linked to the health and growth of the US economy.

Some facts about the N-Routes


Longest – stretching 2255km from Cape Town along the southern and eastern coast until it turns inland and fizzles out in Ermelo (Mpumalanga).


The busiest: in particular the section connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria carrying approximately 300 000 vehicles per day. At certain sections, it is up to 12 lanes wide. Johannesburg has the most N-Routes connected to it: the N1, N3, N12, N14, and N17. According to Wikipedia, it forms the first section of the (in)famous Cape to Cairo Road.


The only one to connect 3 countries, linking Botswana to SA to Mozambique.


The shortest: links Winburg, Bethlehem, and Harrismith over 235km.

N13, N15, and N16

on-existent, or SA’s best-kept secret. For some reason, these route numbers were never assigned


The most expensive: no part of this 330km road, which links Johannesburg and eSwatini, is free, tolls are payable along the entire 330km.


There are plans to establish the N21 Peninsula route which will link Melkbosstrand, Bellville, and Muizenberg in the Western Cape.


The highest number in use: it stretches from Warrenton (NC) to Lobatse (Botswana).

These roads play an enormous role in the South African and Southern African economies. Economies that must and will be weaned off carbon-emitting fossil fuels. It is therefore important that recharging infrastructure investment is done sooner rather than later.

It requires foresight and an ambition to improve the lives of others to embark on a project as big as ZeroCC is envisioning.

Establishing a recharge station every 150km along the rural sections of the N-routes is a giant undertaking. Yet, in terms of what South Africa needs to do to accelerate the changeover to EVs and to play a part in lowering CO emissions, it is merely the beginning.

Next time a boozy braai side know-it-all starts philosophizing about SA roads refer him, or her, to the ZeroCC website.

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