Ain’t about the ch-ch-ching ch-ching
Ain’t about the bl-bling-bl-bling …
We need to take it back in time,
When music made us all unite!
And it wasn’t low blows and video hoes,
Am I the only one getting tired?
(Lyrics from Price Tag by Jessie J, 2011)
I dedicate this article to Sam Amod Pr Eng and Peter Kleynhans Pr Eng, who in the past three weeks, while working on a sensitive project of national importance, impressed upon me the meaning of Civil Engineer.
I have had the pleasant experience of meeting the late Eric Hall – former City Engineer of Johannesburg, Honorary Fellow of SAICE, recipient of SAICE’s prestigious Gold Medal, and SAICE President in 1973. A famous story of Eric Hall’s is, when asked what he would have been had he not been a civil engineer, he responded, “… ashamed of myself!”
In my mind’s eye, I have a vision of what civil engineering professionals and civil engineering should be for the 21st century. It emanates from a combination of things, wrapped in roots of history and heritage, sprouting in new, aspirational legacy – perhaps a new definition of our profession. And since Civilution is an introspective conversion, where we abandon pessimism and distrust, and then regenerate ourselves to become a creative and intelligent part of the solution again, I venture:
“Civil Engineering is the art of directing and collaborating with the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of human society and for the sustainability and protection of our natural heritage.”
This because I have always been of the conviction that a civil engineering professional is in the redemption strategy to restore fairness, order and balance in and between nature and society; that the sweet burden of a civil engineer is that of being servant of the people, and custodian of the natural environment and collaborator with its processes.
There is evidence that civil engineering has been around for more than 9 000 years. But the word “engineer” was first used around the 17th century in Italy and France. Engineers were actually military engineers working for the armed forces of a sovereign monarchy – building roads, bridges and weaponry for the advancement of the militia.
In times of peace, however, the king would instruct his engineers to return from the battle frontiers and use their skill to construct infrastructure to benefit his constituencies. Until this time they were still referred to as “military engineers”, but doing civil work. With the notion of developing civil infrastructure like roads, bridges and buildings for civil society and enhancing civil-isation, the name “civil engineer” surfaced as an independent profession for the first time in England in the 18th century.
These men were respected as skilled intellectuals and philosophers who dined at the king’s table and had access to the signet of the highest authority of the land. Throughout this history, the role of the civil engineering professional was to provide the king with honest and impartial advice. Serving king, country and society – I truly cannot imagine a more rewarding, honourable and gratifying profession than to be a civil engineer serving my government and my people.
I am concerned, however, that modern civil engineering is suffering from an identity crisis. We have, in my opinion, detracted from our purpose and calling, and rejected the manual that governs our existence.
In his book Captain in the Cauldron, John Smit tells how, in the first week of his Springbok captaincy, the team shrink got the Bok players to sit down in a circle around a Springbok jersey. Each player was asked to share what the jersey meant – what it had done for them in the past, and what it could do for them in the future. After Smit and another player articulated their beliefs and aspirations, it was Os Durandt’s turn – that legend of a loosehead prop. The giant “… grabbed the jersey, bent his head and then remained quiet for some time. Nobody knew what was going on, and then we realised that the colossal man was crying. Os, the epitome of Springbok rugby, was overcome with emotion. We were profoundly moved.”
If I had to gather the civil engineering professionals into a circle and lay civil engineering out on a carpet, spread out like a Springbok jersey, and ask what civil engineering meant to you – I wonder how you would inspire me.