Being an engineer is like being South African – we don’t stop being South African if the crime rate is high or if our rugby team loses. Likewise, by virtue of being engineers, we should not stop innovating because of being paid less. In fact, if you are not innovating, you shouldn’t be calling yourself an engineer.

Where there is work that requires professionalism, accuracy, diligence, trust, reliability and ethical values; where the task summons for the services of men and women of honour, the petition should be: “Find me an engineer.”

                                                                                                          Civilution Congress 2014

It is not inaccurate to declare that we live in a different South Africa compared to 20 years ago. In many ways this is the new South Africa that our freedom fighters talked about – new government, advanced legislation, diverse economy, open social structure, liberal society, free communication and multicultural young people. Everything is new.

At the Civilution Congress in April, Thuli Madonsela, in her address, made reference to Egypt and Israel. She mentioned that it took 40 years for the Israelites to cross the desert into the Promised Land, and that we as South Africans should be proud that we have taken half that time to establish and make democracy tangible. With narrative licence, I want to elaborate on this chronicle.  

Almost 3 500 years ago, a famous revolution took place. It started with a mass group of Hebrews living in Egypt for more than 400 years. In the final quarter of that time they lived in oppression and slavery under the iron hand of the ruling Pharaoh.  But at some point, under their leader Moses, the Hebrews fled Egypt and traversed the Sinai desert to the Promised Land. As Madonsela rightly said, and backed by holy writ and encyclopaedias of Israel, it took 40 years for the emancipated Hebrews to cross the desert. The first interesting fact of this liberation story is that the 40-year journey, under normal, organised and coordinated circumstances, takes 11 days.

The second interesting fact, as documented in literature, is that those who were 20 years or older when they fled Egypt, did not make the triumphant entry into the Promised Land. In fact, Moses himself, after leading his people for more than 40 callous years was not permitted the grand entrance. He stood on a hill, on the eastern escarpment of the Jordan River overlooking the majestic western planes of the Promised Land spread out before him, reached out his hand, touched the cool mid-morning air, and with a distant searching gaze, keeled over and died.

From commentary on why these seniors didn’t enter the Promised Land, I learned that it was not because they were elderly, tired or grey. It wasn’t because they were physically weak – they had evidently endured an arduous desert crossing. Neither were they intellectually destitute or experientially shy. It unfolds that they were prevented because they were grumpy, murmuring, complainers, soaked in pessimism. In fact some were so uninspired that they asked Moses to return to Egypt because life was better there, despite slavery.

Herewith my poetic licence: Egypt was better. There were no service delivery strikes. They preferred service delivery the Egypt way. In Egypt the traffic lights worked, and potholes never emerged. ESKOM was efficient in the land Pharaoh – in Egypt there was no load shedding. In Egypt, the municipalities were organised and structured and cadre deployment was nonexistent. There was neither corruption nor Nkandla-type scandals. Egypt had engineers who ruled the show, had status and respect and wore suits. The reason why these Hebrews, who ironically were the favoured ones, did not enter the Promised Land, was their lousy attitude.

In our deliberations at the Civilution Congress, Minister Trevor Manuel asked us to be engineers and do engineering differently. Ketso Gordan of PPC challenged us engineers to respond to our environment, that environment which encompasses an inherent political, social and economic dynamic that is not going to change for a while. CEO of SANRAL, Nazir Alli, and NPC Commissioner, Mike Muller, encouraged engineers to be innovative and ethical in their work. Another NPC Commissioner, Bobby Godsell, said that many of the issues faced by engineers are not technical – they are issues of the heart, of philosophy, and belief.  An optimistic, solution-framed and enthusiastic attitude is what is going to take us into the Promised Land – the right attitude about our government, our institutions and our future, coupled with our existing world-class engineering competence and the training of our incredible young engineers. Reinventing ourselves – this is the door that leads to the new South Africa. 

I challenge every engineering practitioner never to return, in thought or deed, to Egypt, but to press towards the Promised Land – the New South Africa. 


1 Comment

  1. Greetings Manglin
    Thank you for your apt Biblical analogy of the Israelites and their travels which preceded their entry into the Promised Land of Canaan
    Here is a contribution from one of the (now) grey-haired semi-retired South African (civil) engineers who would like to be remembered as forward-thinking, and progressive towards development of the New South Africa, rather than a grumbler along the lines of the older generation who did not enter the Promised Land
    Following up from the brief discussions we had when the Presidential party visited CapeTown branch recently, I am fully supportive of the comments attributed to Trevor Manuel at Civilution, that we South African engineers “need to engineer things differently”
    My theme at the time, noted to both yourself and our President, Stanford Mkhacane, and I’m sure this would have been debated at Civilution at length, (unfortunately I could not attend) is “How do we as engineers (and here I included ALL the Built Professions because of the complexity of the issue)take the issue of services delivery (and with it decent housing) in South Africa by the “scruff of the neck” so to speak – AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE ??
    We cannot, and should not in my opinion, stand idly by doing nothing constructive ourselves, and continually blaming the politicians for a lack of political will, but rather take the bull by the horns and show what South African engineers are capable of.
    This should NOT be allowed to become a political football.
    We have all the technology, skills, resources and manpower to do the job and make services delivery in this country a reality.
    Over the years SAICE has embarked on various “pilot projects” on its own initiative, I think here, as an example, of some of the early assistance with schooling of high school learners in Mathematics and Physical Science back in the later 70’s / 80’s over many years.
    In similar vein but on a grander scale, and as a tribute to our late First Democratic President (Madiba) it would seem to me appropriate that we set-up workshops among our collective memberships to determine how, where and what form such an initiative might take, and dealing comprehensively with all related issues, starting with an urgent needs analysis, the procurement of land in an appropriate area(s), financing, design of township development, and construction of all necessary services (and housing), and follow-up by getting to work with implementation – NOT just talking about it !
    I would have thought this sort of “pilot project” could, with appropriate promotion and guidance, and support of all forward-looking South Africans, whether engineers, financiers, legal practitioners, media representatives or whatever, become a model on which the next 25+ years of “decent housing development” in this country could be undertaken.
    It seems to me also a model which the global community (certainly our engineering institutions worldwide)would be prepared to subscribe to, support and partner where a sustainable outcome is presented – ie this is not simply intended as a once-off handout, but a serious attempt to address the iniquities of our recent past and provide a better quality of life for the poor of our country

Leave a Reply