It is encouraging how the Gauteng public, and particularly the civil engineering community, have come together to lament the collapse of the temporary structure at the Grayston interchange that killed two people. It was also pleasing to note the cooperation between the City of Johannesburg, Gautrain, Metrobus, Putco and Uber to help relieve the traffic congestion around the interchange. There is still goodwill in this country – the new South Africa is not fake.
The media was, understandably, in a frenzy, baying for blood, confronting for blame and responsibility, and our colleagues from Murray & Roberts responded with an unequivocal “… we will find out what caused the collapse.” On radio interviews the response from their CEO, Henry Laas, was exemplary: “We are deeply sorry for what has happened here.” No hiding behind portfolios, committees and bureaucracy.
It is ironic that the civil engineering industry provides infrastructure to improve quality of life, to protect life and to enhance socio-economic development. This particular temporary work was installed in the process of constructing a pedestrian and cycle bridge to connect the poorest in Johannesburg (Alexandra) to economic opportunity in thriving Sandton – a worthy undertaking.
As a profession we should be concerned that there are too many of these types of tragic incidences occurring – the Tongaat Mall, Centurion Mall Parking, a private residential building in the south of Johannesburg, and so on. We have adequate legislation in the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 (revised in 2014) and the construction regulations, the Engineering Profession Act of 2000, together with the structural engineering loading and steel design codes, combined with world-class engineering practitioners, consultants and contractors, to prevent construction catastrophes.
These collapses are civil engineering disasters – as a profession we take responsibility for them. South Africa is yearning for models of ethical behaviour. In relation to accountability, this dreadful incident is an opportunity for the civil engineering and construction industry to show what true accountability and transparency look like. This is also an opportunity for ECSA, SAICE and the various engineering bodies to show mettle when it matters. We need to clearly communicate the stages and processes of accountability to the nation, and we have to take swift action after the investigations are complete. In doing this we also help educate the millions of respectable South Africans who want to do something about maladministration and corruption.
As a general observation and an alert emanating from the collapse – Murray & Roberts is a reputable and world-renowned construction company that employs hundreds of professionally registered engineering and other built environment professionals in the fabric of their organisation. If they can suffer such a tragic experience, the public sector, particularly municipalities who have too few or no engineering practitioners, are in a treacherously risky and vulnerable position, disposed to greater construction tragedies. How many more disasters are required before Government makes the public sector an attractive employer of choice for engineering professionals?
Here is a role for SAICE and Civilution – what are we going to do differently, in a revolutionary way, to redeem our honourable profession? SAICE is the learned society and technical leadership hub of the profession, involved in the knowledge base and network of civil engineering. We will continue to be the voice of the profession and to disseminate knowledge and wisdom, with a view that these types of disasters never happen again. But is it enough?