"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Stephen Grellet (Quaker Minister) 1773-1855
In a frayed black-and-white photograph of the Standard 3 Class of 1960, of the rustic Umdhloti State Aided Indian Primary School, there are 33 pairs of hopeful fledgling eyes staring out of the picture. At a closer examination of the frame, a handsome face arrests my attention – the face of one named Cram, a countenance of innocence and deep contemplation, beyond his years. The child stands in the front row, in uninterrupted sight of the camera, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, grey short pants and his feet bare.
The community of Verulam, on Friday 7 September 2012, celebrated the life of the town’s last mayor (1991–1996), the Honourable Mr Cram Rambarun. At the funeral, the preacher proclaimed Cram Rambarun an Abner – ‘God’s light and warrior’ – saying that he epitomised illumination and presence, and that he was an erudite scholar, who used his politics to defend the rights of the poor, and who dined with ease and comfort in humble homes and mansions alike. The thousands of diverse people in attendance bore testament to the eulogy.
I learned that the great man, in his early days, conceptualised a potable water supply project, raised the funds, sought the expertise of engineers, and provided a supply of borehole water to the poorest in the town. He did this on a voluntary basis.
During his years as mayor, and being a son of the community, he quietly refused the stipend offered to him as councillor. He redirected the emolument into a fund that was used to build a world-class market that still serves Verulam today, some 20 years later.
SAICE is home to some 10 000 civil engineering practitioners, from all avenues of the built environment. Our membership includes heads of departments and lecturers of all universities and universities of technology that offer civil engineering. Our members work in the private sector, mainly in consulting and construction, and in parastatals including Eskom, Transnet, SANRAL, PRASA and others. Our members also emanate from the finance sector – banking, investment and insurance. Even though engineering and technical resources are in short supply in government, many of our members are from the public sector, from all tiers of government.
Herein lies an opportunity – a dominant and prevailing platform to influence the direction of a nation and to positively effect change where it is needed most. Have you considered this opportunity and your role as a civil engineer to leave a legacy? When was the last time you engaged with your local SAICE branch?
But, in keeping with the spirit of my salutation, I wish to direct my thoughts to the need for engineers at local government level, at the municipalities where service delivery meets the people, where corruption and malpractice is perceived to be at its most fierce. I have travelled across the length and breadth of South Africa talking to civil engineering practitioners, and I have heard the anthems of grievances our engineers have raised – poor procurement practices, anti-competitive behaviour, unprofessionalism in the municipality, and the lack of mentoring and training for young engineers in local government.
In place of complaining, and my sympathising with the squalid state of affairs, I propose we immerse ourselves in the solution and not the morass. Because engineering practitioners solve problems – like soldiers are trained for battle, civil engineers are trained to solve problems.
May I offer an alternative approach – how about the SAICE local branch, with the might of its membership behind the committee, together with the senior office bearers of SAICE, approaches local political leaders with a view to align our technical resources to assist the municipality solve its challenges. I have been approached by professionally registered SAICE members, keen to assist in making improvements at municipalities as full-time employees. They have offered to install their names on a database – we are contemplating such a database for the imminent future.
Engineers appear to have lost all recognition at government level – intellectuals reduced to scraping through scraps of unethical politics and debilitating bureaucracy. But doing nothing is not an option. If we wish to change the story of South Africa, and achieve plan 2030, your municipality and your community need you.
Civil engineers are a gift to society – make yourself available to be unwrapped by your local community. Start etching your mark on society, the same etching that will be proclaimed at your eulogy when the trumpet sounds.