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.