The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) was dismayed to learn that the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality could soon be without its only remaining professionally registered city engineer. According to The Herald, Walter Shaidi’s five-year contract comes to an end this month and his contract has not yet been renewed. 

How can this be possible in a country where civil engineering is regarded as a priority scarce skill and government’s National Development Plan and all the other initiatives to better service delivery are in fact dependent on the expertise of the civil engineering professional.

Should Shaidi, a competent experienced engineer with a good track record, leave this municipality that once boasted 50 permanent professional engineers, it will have no experienced, professionally -registered engineer in its employ, and this in a municipality that governs the Eastern Cape’s industrial hub. The infrastructure department will then only have technicians and junior engineers who will not be able to appropriately oversee projects done by consultants, and the metro will have no professional engineer to sign off designs, projects, etc. The MEC for Local Government has appointed a qualified engineer to “assist “for six months, but what about continuity at senior level, or is that no longer important?

All this is happening while the city experiences pressure to deliver services. This year Port Elizabeth has borne the brunt of resident’s anger in various townships, demanding service delivery regarding water, sanitation, housing, roads, waste management – all civil engineering disciplines. The key to service delivery is to have the right people with the right attitudes, qualifications and experience in the right positions to do the work or at least to oversee what others need to be doing.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, it is general knowledge that many local authorities have not even one civil engineering professional in its employ. How does one address service delivery issues without a single competently qualified engineer? How can a municipality exert control over projects worth millions without such an engineer. It is just not possible!

A former employee of the metro said that it is indeed a disgrace that a metro the size of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality with a substantial budget does not have appropriately qualified and experienced city engineers. To solve a situation such as this, strong political will is needed.

What is happening in this metro is not an isolated occurrence. Allyson Lawless, Director, SAICE Professional Development and Projects and author of Numbers and Needs in Local Government (2007), recently said, “I would say the level of engineering experience (in SA) has definitely been reduced in the last five years. The problem is that as experienced people leave, they are replaced by people of very limited experience, so there is no one to train the youngsters.”  This is still continuing and getting worse.

Worse, Lawless says, decision-making on infrastructure does not reside in the technical departments of South Africa’s public sector. This impedes infrastructure management, supply chains, maintenance and operations.

The lack of skills or the unsustainable deployment of the current source of civil engineering professionals, along with the lack of maintenance plans will dampen or even sink the improvement of existing infrastructure in South Africa if nothing is done about it.

Various commissions and agencies established to solve problems in local government can research and examine, but the service delivery infrastructure can only be made a reality by civil engineering professionals.

If infrastructure development and maintenance are inadequate it will impede on social and economic growth in South Africa – something South Africa cannot afford. Civil engineering is at the heart of service delivery. If a municipality does not appoint qualified, experienced and competent civil engineering professionals, everybody in the country is at risk.

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