The South African National Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) announced that engineering skills dominate the top 20 most sought after scarce skills – civil engineering features second on the demand list behind electrical engineering. This view is endorsed by the Department of Labour (DoL). In South Africa, a scarce skill is a qualification or job for which there are limited people doing that job. Effective utilisation of scarce skills has been proven to set countries on a winning economic pathway, as evidenced in Singapore, China, Japan and many others. 

Is there a shortage of engineering capacity in the country? I am not convinced we are short of engineers. If there was a deficiency in engineering skills, why don’t engineering professionals earn extravagantly more than other professionals? But the DHET and the DoL announcements have nipped that debate in the bud.

Is there a bright future for civil engineering business in South Africa?

According to Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) figures published by the national treasury, it is interesting to note that South Africa invested, on average, 7.4% of GDP per year on infrastructure from 2009 to 2013. According to the treasury, we will continue spending 7.4% of GDP on infrastructure for the next three years. As a matter of interest, the comparative average for other BRICS countries is 4.5%. 

So why is local engineering capacity not optimally occupied? And why are civil engineering companies complaining about the lack of opportunities when the numbers show magnificent prospects? My view is that it’s politics and politicians. The politicians send subtle messages by refusing to engage with the local private sector, but would very quickly make stop-overs to Russia and China. In terms of solution finding and collaboration, our state leaders seem to deliberately seek solutions elsewhere, but ignore the wisdom of local champions and captains of business.

But this is not surprising – the relationship between South African business and government will continue to enjoy a strenuous affiliation so long as the SACP and COSATU are in bed with the ruling party. It’s more worrying that President Zuma’s cabinet is encumbered with SACP members.

In my opinion, there is a glow, but only in about three to four years from now. If there is one thing that is uniting South Africa these days, it’s the dissatisfaction of the electorate in government, the president, and the ruling party. President Jacob Zuma’s approval rating dropped from 77% in 2009 to 46% in 2014. We should be preparing for rain come the end of the current term.

In the interim I am more concerned about the moral decay of society than I am about the future of civil engineering and the opportunities that this incredible profession brings. I mean moral decay in the sense that it causes me to live in mortal fear and insecurity in the country of my birth. I worry because politics and politicians have exacerbated the erosion of social capital – which is that common set of unspoken rules, values and trust that catalyses a cohesive society. By their behaviour, association and actions, our politicians promote a culture of lawlessness and disrespect for discipline. Our development, I believe, is impeded, not by constrained GDP spend, but because of our nation’s lack of discipline. A disciplined society develops automatically.

It is becoming more urgent that the built environment private sector and organised society recognise that our political culture, politicians and politics are laboriously protracting development to the point of failing local economic and social development. We need a critical intervention if we want to launch South Africa into the premier league. Politics is failing the country – business needs to proactively engage government, or South Africa will fail to reach its potential.


  1. I do agree with your views. Having recently attended the SARF/IRF Conference (we had a brief conversation after the dinner), it was apparent to me that the vast majority of the non-technical problems raised at the conference, such as listed by Malcolm Mitchell in his paper, and the lack of progress on road safety, all stem from the same cause, namely, a lack of authentic leadership in government. It is the lack authentic leadership that has undermined discipline and which has defaulted to a culture of anarchy, channeling energy into destructive service delivery protests instead of people taking responsibility and working together on constructive ways to improve their situation. This negative cycle can, in my opinion only be broken by authentic leadership, such as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela during his term of office. I see this as the most important issue affecting the future of South Africa and will surely determine whether the current downward spiral can be arrested.

  2. Thanks, Manglin, for another strong message
    All SA engineers will agree strongly with your closing comment and “business needs to proactively engage government”. Organization, structure and strong leadership are required to achieve such engagement. SAICE (and SAIME and SAIEE etc), CESA, IMIESA, SAFCEC etc are the structures that SA engineers rely on to “do something”. If those structures don’t “do it”, then another structure must be formed to engage government. We hear that the VAs (voluntary organizations) are engaging with government, but little seems to change, and your message seems to be directed to business that it (they) must do something. If the VAs are not going to be the leaders in engaging government, then the VAs must step aside and allow for another (single?) body to be formed that will do what needs to be done.
    I believe you are the best person to lead the charge in pulling together the VAs and business to achieve the critical intervention that will launch South Africa into the premier league.
    Your comments will be most instructive.

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