Human Rights Day has come and gone, and it was interesting to learn that over the past two years, 144 complaints concerning water, water quality and related problems, were lodged with the Human Rights Commission – thus directly linked to service delivery or the lack thereof.

The increasing restlessness of communities resulting in toy-toying and violence could be a symptom of a people who lack their basic human needs, i.e. water, sanitation, roads, etc., which impact their human rights through the lack of or inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, which in turn is due to the lack of appropriately skilled civil engineering practitioners in local authorities who could ensure that infrastructure is developed, properly maintained and operated.

In many communities roads have deteriorated to such an extent that taxi drivers refuse to use them, leaving people without the necessary transport to access clinics, hospitals, schools, and other amenities.

These challenges are multi-layered and manifold and not new, but they will remain at the top of agendas for the next number of years. “The provision of civil infrastructure is the surest way to improve the social and economic wealth of a nation. Most Millennium Development Goals are based on the ability and availability of the civil engineering sector,” says Manglin Pillay, CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE).

Unfortunately, local governments, primarily responsible to provide adequate infrastructure to communities, cannot spend the budgets they have for these projects, largely due to the lack of civil engineering and other professionals employed at local level, Pillay emphasises.

“Technical decision-making processes have been substantially paralysed as the engineering professional has been relegated to subservience in non-strategic positions. Indications are that engineering decisions are subject to inadequately informed political governance structures. Disillusioned individual engineering professionals are therefore still leaving local authorities, resulting in the current approximately 2 000 vacancies for civil engineering professionals in local authorities,” says Pillay.

SAICE provides some statistics to put this challenge into perspective. In 2007, the status of civil engineering staff in local government was estimated to be between 1 300 and 1 400. This indicates a nett loss of 70 to 90 engineering staff per year since the late eighties. 

Ideally, engineering teams should reflect the accepted international municipal and utility ratio of six engineering professionals per 100 000 inhabitants. In South Africa’s best case scenarios (larger cities and towns), municipalities have access to three engineering professionals for each 100 000 inhabitants. 

“This is not nearly enough to address our country’s service delivery needs, including water, sanitation and waste management, and those remaining need to serve a population of 50 million or more, a load which is excessive. If allowed to continue, service delivery will all but come to a standstill,” says Pillay.

Dr Martin van Veelen, 2012 SAICE president and first president of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, highlights the fact that South Africa’s accumulated wisdom is vested in an ageing engineering corps and the challenge is to transfer this wisdom to young upcoming engineers. It is therefore in this sector where experienced and knowledgeable professionals are required to plan the development of infrastructure and to oversee the sustainable management of the country’s valuable infrastructure assets.

Action

How can these challenges be met, and is it indeed possible? SAICE is in the process of taking action to address the burning issues facing communities and the country at large.

In support of the National Development Plan (NDP), SAICE, with its 110-year history and its contribution towards the development of South Africa, has initiated the “Era of Civilution”. Pillay states that South Africa has embarked on a new struggle ? a revolution that relates to infrastructure and industrialisation, and with the goals that are to be met before 2030.

SAICE will host the Civilution Congress from 6 to 8 April 2014. Engineers will seek ways in which to approach the engineering and infrastructure challenges facing South Africa in a different manner.

According to Pillay, “It is time for engineers and engineering to redeem their esteem, prestige and respect; to take back what rightly belongs to us – excellence, ethical business practice, sustainability, and making a difference.

Peter Kleynhans, current president of SAICE, enthuses, “Civilution is a new era of engineers in solidarity to restore our place in society and to bring into focus the importance of what engineering means to South Africa. When our engineering descendants look back 100 years from now, to the time of the National Development Plan, the New Growth Path, the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) and the 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs), they will recognise that it was a challenging time for engineers, but that those engineers rose to the occasion and mended a society that was in dire need of elevation out of a state of despondency.

“Looking back they will realise that those engineers started the Civilution movement, which eventually became an era which created a legacy. “

Furthermore, in her research publication, Numbers & Needs in local government: Addressing civil engineering – the critical profession for service delivery, Dr Allyson Lawless, the first woman president of SAICE in 2000 and director of SAICE Professional Development and Projects, unpacks the severe capacity conundrum local authorities face.

Dr Lawless’ plan

Dr Lawlesss reviews the lack of professional engineers at municipal level, the migration of skills towards the private sector and into global markets, and focuses on solutions for municipalities, encouraging players to develop a uniquely South African model for local government.

She refers to the development of a ‘Marshall Plan’ to rebuild adequate numbers of artisans, operators, civil and electrical engineers, town and regional planners, property valuators, building inspectors and laboratory technicians – to name some of the key skills. This will require:

 

 

 

 

 

  • Municipalities to step up technical appointments and attract as many back into the sector as possible
  • The public sector to offer and coordinate support and set conditions towards sustainability
  • Deployment of students and graduates on long-term workplace training contracts
  • Harnessing professional bodies to mobilise available or retired skills and to advise on professional training
  • Consultants to second experienced municipal staff to run departments and rebuild internal capacity 
  • In some instances, an ‘adopt-a-town’ strategy whereby the private sector is appointed on a turnkey basis to address backlogs, refurbish and rebuild long-term structures, systems and capacity per municipality

Service delivery is at the heart of civil engineering and SAICE is able and willing to assist. It is only possible to address the human rights violations regarding service delivery to communities if all sectors tangibly show support where it is needed. And that SAICE does!

 

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