Gaia is groaning and the world is going mal. Planes are falling out the sky, the usually quiet earth has begun to grumble, the sea is swallowing people up in their thousands, men are slaughtering children, brotherly friction continues to feudal proportions, and amidst the savannahs of this lunacy, a deadly viral infection inconspicuously postures itself to pounce upon humanity for the final fatal finish. And to these calamities, the unaffected are seduced to indifference.

I was flabbergasted to learn that South Africa’s Departments of Travel and Tourism, Health and International Relations are yet to create a strategy, let alone implement an action plan, to prevent the Ebola virus from entering South Africa. Port Health facilities at points of entry across our borders do not proactively investigate for contaminated carriers. When quizzed about how they identify infected passengers, officials said they rely on the honesty of passengers to declare their medical condition on port entry forms.

CESA, which has the vested interest of consultants at heart, reported in 2010 that there was a migration of engineers from the public sector to the private sector, mainly into consulting engineering. From 1990 to 2010, the ratio of government technical professionals to population declined from 1:2 700 to 1:27 000, while the number of employees in consulting increased from 12 000 to 21 000. It is common knowledge that as a result, the public sector has become an uninformed and incompetent client, and this is the main reason for inadequate service delivery and deterioration in public engineering infrastructure. But we have long harassed the public sector over this, and the situation is improving. I would like to believe the private sector, too, is mature enough to examine itself with honest introspection and compunction, to improve.

South Africa has produced some of the finest engineering consultancy companies in the world. Our consultants do sterling work in providing world-class and professional service to our clients both in South Africa and abroad. I respect, honour and acknowledge these companies for their excellence, innovation and ethical standpoint in engineering despite the severe challenges we face in the industry.

But herewith my hypothesis – given that our economic paradigm is based on an exploitative capitalist system, whose measure is currency and commercial benefit (as opposed to the sustainable utilisation and availability of natural resources and co-existentialism), I put it to you that it is in the interest of consultants to have an unknowledgeable and weak client. Simply, the main purpose of consultants is to make money for shareholders – it is therefore in the consultant’s interest to have an unenlightened client.

If I am wrong, how would we explain projects awarded to some consultants for several million rands, but as the assignments unfold, fees escalate to double or triple the original fee proposal? I would also like to understand why selected consultants are unhappy about tendering, but with the brain power of the 21 000+ engineering professionals behind CESA, together with the support of organised civil societies like SAICE, SAFCEC, SABTACO and other similar interested and affected parties, we are unable to put forward, in solidarity, a suitable, practical and acceptable alternative despite the Civilution movement and the Civilution Forum?

I would also like to learn why certain consulting companies see the need to have politically connected individuals who know little about engineering or the engineering business, sitting on their boards. And while we’re at it, explain why the training of graduate engineers and achieving transformation is so sluggish in the private sector.

While we continue to engage the client to professionalise, the private sector should continue to do the same. Engineering consultants, by virtue of being engineers, and civil engineers in particular, should zealously seek to maintain the tenets, traditions and culture of this glorious profession, and not relax on the doctrines of ethics, justice and servant-hood, for I cannot imagine a more rewarding and honourable career than to be a civil engineer in South Africa in such a time as this.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus is locally yet to happen and South African medical professionals believe there is sufficient time to prevent its entry into South Africa. Thus, there is still time before this deadly virus takes on plague proportions. We need to transparently and publicly make every effort to squash its venomous intrusions before it starts to manifest in our society and dominate the history of the modern Roman calendar for South Africa. 

3 Comments

  1. I share all the concerns, but it is a little unfair to blame the consulting firms for taking on the skilled and experienced professionals who have left public service employment. The primary causes of this exodus lie squarely within the government sector itself and unrealistic government procurement policies.

    Sadly, public sector organisations have created engineer-unfriendly working environments that are driving away engineers in their droves. This is not the place to examine the many reasons for this. We should be grateful that consulting firms have been able to take on at least some of those fleeing the fleeing the Government sector. That is far preferable to losing them entirely to the insurance industry, early retirement and emigration.

    Government itself is guilty of setting unrealistically high BEE and HDI targets that cannot be met. There are simply not enough engineers in this category to go around. Thankfully greater numbers of previously disadvantaged graduates are coming into the market, but it will require some years of on the job training before they have acquired sufficient experience to move into increasingly more senior managerial positions. HDI targets that are out of step with the current supply have resulted in black engineers becoming like hens teeth that are desperately sought by the private sector to build up their quotas sufficiently to win government contracts. So should we be surprised if archaic state remuneration packages are incapable of retaining them? Moreover, the tendency of government HR departments to almost exclusively award bursaries to black students makes them particularly vulnerable to losing their young talent.

    Another downside of BEE and HDI policies is that engineering submissions tend to get overloaded with soft sciences components to get the numbers up. (Yes, soft sciences do have their place, but the limits are often stretched beyond reason.) The reason is simple – our schools are not equipping enough matriculants with maths and science training, which precludes them from pursuing careers in engineering.

    I couldn’t agree more that dishing out vast amounts of shareholding (usually for free) to politically connected non-engineering chairmen and directors is iniquitous. But is this the fault of the consulting firms? No one in their right mind happily surrenders shareholding to non-participants. The only motivation for doing so is sheer self-defence. Those who do not do it will simply go out of business. In this respect the enforced BEE policies are little more than enforced corruption. Far from being the beneficiaries, the engineering firms are the victims that are being mugged.

    Is it good for consulting engineering firms to have a weak client? Most firms are suffering from an acute lack of work resulting from the inability of government departments to even prepare terms of reference for essential work, let alone get out tenders, make sound adjudication decisions and supervise the work as informed clients. It is therefore in everyone’s best interests to restore the engineering capacity of government departments as quickly as possible so that the developmental logjam can be unlocked.

    Are consulting firms mere capitalist tools? The only reason why they are sill in business and delivering service to society is because they make modest profits. When profits stop, so does the service. Profit margins have always been modest (believe me, I was there) and have been coming under increasing pressure. That is why so many large South African engineering firms have voluntarily offered themselves to be taken over by foreign companies. It was the only way to remain solvent. For the same reason they are increasingly diversifying their activities outside of our borders. If we are not careful, we will find that when our economy again booms much of our engineering capacity will have evaporated and we have to appoint foreign skills at great cost to ourselves. As Eskom found to their (our) cost when they belatedly tried to resume building power stations.

  2. We have to hope that Ebola doesn’t hit our neighbouring countries. Our porous borders would leave us particularly vulnerable. Panic would probably increase the illegal influx with large numbers of people seeking better hospital services.

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