South Africa’s engineers have to rethink their identity and be more conscious of their actions to help put the country on a sustainable path, Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel said on Monday.

Speaking at the 2014 Civilution Congress, in Kempton Park, he pointed out that most engineering work was done on a commission basis and, therefore, engineers sometimes did the work that they were contracted for without necessarily considering the long-term impact it would have on the country and the environment.

Manuel added that, in the past, when a lot of South Africa’s engineering work had been undertaken, sustainability did not matter as much as it did today. Therefore, many of South Africa’s industries were built on the availability of coal, without considering the impact of carbon dioxide emissions.

“We built an entire industry based on low-cost energy, but the world is shifting,” he said, noting that people had to “unlock their minds” with regard to how they interacted with the environment.

Manuel said engineers had to consider the quality of life desired by the South African people and issues such as access to electricity, education, reliable transport, employment and a clean environment, and, thereafter, decide how to achieve these goals.

“If we recognise [the need to provide people with a decent standard of living] as important, Civilution must award engineers the opportunity to think about how [to] get there,” he stated.

Manuel said South Africa was, to some extent, currently “resting on its laurels” as its great infrastructure endowment, which included its airports, heavy-haul railway lines and the “Dolos” harbour wall design, was established more than 50 years ago.

Therefore, current engineers had to ask themselves “where is the current innovation of the moment?”

South Africa had to engage in upgrading the capability of its people and the country’s infrastructure while avoiding debt traps, Manuel said.

He explained that this could be done by considering what the country owned, namely its mineral resources, and how those resources were mined and could be sold to pay for necessary upgrades.

Manuel pointed out that the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act stated that South Africa’s mineral resources belonged to all, adding that the National Development Plan (NDP) included the country in the discussion on how these resources could be used for infrastructure expansion.

Engineers also had to consider where they wanted the country to go in the longer term, as was envisioned in the NDP, he said, adding that South Africa could not have the breakdown currently taking palce in the platinum mining sector if it wanted to achieve its goals. 

Besides re-evaluating the manner in which South Africa dealt with its labour challenges, the country also had to rethink its regulatory environment, funding regime and security of energy supply, Manuel added.

“We need to rethink how we deal with certain issues [to reach the country’s preferred future],” Manuel concluded.

Edited by: Tracy Hancock


  1. Mr Manual,
    It is indeed easy to just accuse engineers of not being innovative and neglecting the long term impact of projects. It must however also be stated that engineers do not work on a commision basis, but currently have to tender at the lowest price…
    I wonder whether you would have appointed the doctor with the cheapest fees for a large operation? Or would you have evaluated his/her credentials, and accepted the charge (whatever it was)?
    Previously projects were properly planned and “the government clients” did not have the attitude of “please just spend the money within the next month”.
    It is of the utmost importance that municipalities and government in general start spending money on their projects in the proper manner, and as such appoint the best companies for the projects.
    Appoint the engineers on the government fee scale, and plan projects timeously. Appoint the consultants in time, in order for the feasibility studies and required concepts to be completed. In such a manner we will ensure that innovation comes back to the engineering industry.
    There is no space for innovation during crisis management.
    Hilna Viljoen

  2. Engineers are not responsible for the decisions of past and preset governments. It must be the politicians that hope to govern that mus trethink their strategic plans for the future of us all. Please pass this message to Mr Manuel.

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