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.



  1. For me the most important aspect of my work is honesty and trust-worthiness in delivering a service to my client that is the most cost efficient considering requirements and available resources. My actions and ethics must convince my client of it.
    That is why I hope that the engineering profession will eventually convince government to keep engineering departments separate from party political rule.

  2. Hi Mr. Pillay, what an awesome approach to determine the value of our profession. It is to me everything that you portray in this article – I absolutely love this profession because of how much I respect other engineers in our line of work. We have such a unique and very diverse skills set.

    There are however four scenario’s that really undermines our value to society:

    1) I have been on the receiving end of how some professionals in architecture and quantity surveying treat our services with disrespect. It leaves a bitter taste. Please understand, it is not about me – I just hate that our profession is sometimes misunderstood, undervalued and assumed to be general knowledge. Add to this that Joe Soap in the public sector thinks we sell drawings…

    2) Since we have had to tender for projects and seeing how little value our fellow civil engineers put to the profession by means of their tendering strategies it makes me wonder if this is at all a journey that I would choose again if I had to. I have had my own consulting office for twelve years now and am barely surviving. The current economic situation ads another dimension to this. The accepted level of discounts now being used in the Eastern Cape is between 60% and 80% or you don’t stand a chance to win tenders on construction jobs of approximately R20m. The industry is being damaged beyond repair – who is ever going to pay normal fees again? This practice also devalues the industry’s image.

    3) BBBEE. This is a strategy that is being followed globally but to protect minority groups. It is however only in South Africa where it is used to protect the majority.

    4) There has been an incident in East London recently (4 weeks ago) where the senior people from several government departments were selling tenders to black consultants in a local pub (Buccaneers). Despite being unethical and downright against the law, how will the profession survive if it is not about skill and ability only? Is the rise in incidence of structural failures not an indication of these practices?

    It is my firm belief that our profession is slowly imploding and that soon there will not be enough engineers left to assist government with infrastructure development and spending their budgets.

    I earnestly wish that SAICE would investigate these accusations and determine a corrective response.

    My contact number is 083 707 8070.

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