The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

Horace Walpole, English politician in a letter written in 1776

Andrei Sakharov, the famous nuclear physicist who gave the world the atomic bomb, once said: “I’ve always thought the most powerful weapon in the world was the bomb and that’s why I gave it to my people, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the most powerful weapon in the world is not the bomb, but unarmed truth.” Sakharov became an activist for disarmament, peace and human rights, winning the Nobel peace prize in 1975.

The good citizens of South Africa are suffering fatigue of crime, corruption and consumer abuse. I sense that many of our civil engineering practitioners are also suffering fatigue, and are starting to lose faith in our truth. I think we still respect our institutions – even the public and political ones – parliament for example. We have, however, temporarily lost faith in institutions, because of our disenchantment with unethical leaders.

The sheer insolence! Despite being caught with hands in the cookie jar, and crumbs around the mouth, some of our public leaders feel justified to continue their mediocrity through exploitation and bad behaviour. Some have been caught on video with witnesses, or have been formally tried and found wanting, and still they pursue exoneration in the autonomous melee. Their comrades, despite full acquaintance with their truths – about self-aggrandisement, woman abuse, excess, theft and so on – defiantly defend them. They feel facts don’t matter anymore.

The awesome truth remains that facts don’t care about feelings. If we cannot measure, how do we improve? How do we direct limited resources so that priorities are pursued with minimal wastage? Often in South Africa we expend on populist ideas – spending first on silencing those who burn buildings and shout the loudest without intelligently interrogating the ideas. Objective evidence is missing. Civil engineers ought to play in this space of data conversion into information and knowledge through research and consideration, with a view to inform policy. Without this kind of intervention, we surrender decision-making to political expediency.

Here are some realities:

Of the approximately 278 municipalities in the country, about 202 have no civil engineers – this number was 126 in 2005. The number of professionally registered staff employed in municipalities has decreased from 455 to 294, while the number of non-registered staff has increased from 1 420 to 2 094 in the same time. The good news, however, is that only 28 municipalities have no civil engineering staff compared to 82 in 2005.

Out of 826 wastewater treatment works, only 40 have achieved green drop status. Data for this is based on a 2011 survey – which was the last it was measured. The results show that 165 are running over design capacity, 743 are non-compliant on more than three effluent determinants, 143 facilities have a high risk of failure and 248 are in a critical state, implying that millions of litres of untreated or inadequately treated sewage are illegally discharged into rivers and streams each day, resulting in a range of environmental, economic and social consequences.

In 2014, 4.77 million households received free basic water, and 3.14 million households received free basic sanitation. The challenge with free stuff is that it leaves little to cover operation and maintenance costs, and virtually nothing for amortisation, profit or upgrading. Currently about 3.63 million people have no access to water infrastructure, or have water infrastructure that is below minimum standards.

Some further realities: There are 23 577 schools in South Africa. More than 10% of schools have unreliable electricity infrastructure, 20% have unreliable water supply, and 30% have neglected the maintenance of toilets and toilet systems. Furthermore – 86.2% of schools are without laboratories, 77% have no libraries, 42% have no sports facilities, 67.5% have no computer facilities and only 19.7% have access to the internet.

This is why we need engineers in the public service – so that we can grapple with the evidence to find and disseminate unarmed truth. Our government does not understand the urgency for professionalising the public sector – it is beyond race, gender, religion and politics. It relates to the demise or salvation of a nation – a boat sinking because the captain who is a blue person refuses to engage another person to plug the revealed holes on the boat, because that other person is a green person.

With great optimism, because we get to do this, I encourage civil engineering professionals to persevere in the world of ideas generated from sound knowledge and wisdom. And if the data is not there, let’s make a noise.

The SAICE 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is out – check out the objective evidence (


  1. Dear CEO
    Reading your sober thoughts in the Sunday times, I could not withhold myself to this response.

    I am Henry Eksteen, a parliamentary liaison officer at the financial and fiscal commission under the leadership of Commissioner Prof Daniel Plaatjies.
    However I respond in a personal capacity and wish to be understood as that.
    Firstly, your article highlights the challenge we facing in south Africa which also shows up in the backlogs we are facing pertaining to infrastructure in the most rural of municipalities in our country. I feel the challenges resides with political interference which Leeds to poor decision making habits, resulting in service delivery challenges and ultimately gross neglect of of the most basic constitutional realities, free basic services.
    Indeed I agree that our country face a capacity of skills, however it does not seem to filter through to the institutions that need to facilitate these and related challenges and address it, we seem to churn out papers on the problems with flamboyant stats and colorful power points not reaching any resolve, yet the backlogs grow and as you indicated the picture will be irreversible with civil disobedience by 2027, given the ever diminishing budget.

    Perhaps you need to look at different options to make the voice of SAICE to be heard, it would be fruitless for me to agree without any positive contribution.
    Here we go:
    1. My resolve would be for you to look at the FFC Annual Submission on the Division of Revenue 2018/19 , request a meeting with the Chairperson and discuss some issues, your hot and current state can be telling if it’s presented to the correct forum- which include parliament, salga, metros, provinces (legislatures) and the intergovernmental fora in national government. Given the fact that FFC is a chapter 10 institution that operate independently and has major influence in government at the Intergovernmental Fora.
    My challenge is that we operate in silo’s which does not work well when facing these and related crisis.
    2. Also look at previous FFC submissions that speak this challenge, especially with our students not getting enough opportunities, given the idea of PPP’s which the FFC also proposed in the current recommendations to the budget it made to government.
    3. Speaking to eg. SALGA etc will not help if you don’t have a legitimate voice to speak through. The commission make recommendations on the budget for the next financial year and this is a looming crisis that are underscored of which the importance need to be preached by any means possible.
    4. This engagement could also bring about some co- research projects that would give voice to the technical professionals at a policy level through a voice of possible reason with hard hitting facts

    Let stop here, I can go on and on but it would only be complaints.

    I trust my small input to your article will bring some sober sense and add value.

    Henry Eksteen

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