Business, like water, is lazy and cowardly. Both gravitate via paths of least resistance, finding gaps and loopholes, weaknesses and fissures, to achieve their ends. But one to acquire its moksha, and the other to acquire socio-economic benefit – economic nirvana.
However, like water, despite its lazy and cowardly status, if business is not closely monitored and managed, it could incur devastating social and economic impacts.
On a related tack, over the past weeks, I have travelled extensively for both work and vacation. I have gathered two observations. The first is the endorsement of Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory – that people are the same wherever you go. The second is that South Africa is the most desirable destination to enjoy salubrious climate, rich cultural heritage, diversity, fair cost of living and great value for money. South Africa possesses a most conducive agricultural climate, as well as fertile commercial and trade conditions where entrepreneurial activity and innovative creativity are promoted.
Notwithstanding peaceful possession of this fair south portion of the earth, we find ourselves charmed to expand our territories and circles of influence, as far as business is concerned. In recent months, there have been excellent mergers and acquisitions (M&As) of some of our best and brightest infrastructure engineering service providers with larger international outfits – service providers that have their foundations firmly planted in South African history and that are connected to its people and government, doing sterling work for the development of South Africa, showcasing South African engineering innovation on infrastructure platforms in Africa and around the globe.
With the depreciation of our local currency and the lack of financial depth of South Africa’s new individual economic role players, the cyclical nature of the engineering business and the lack of government project roll-out, acquisitions and mergers with outside companies are obviously highly attractive for longstanding shareholders. Further to this, an array of opportunities have now been opened to our local engineers, particularly younger engineers; this includes opportunities to travel and work on international projects, to participate in diverse and experienced engineering teams from around the world. In line with this, South African engineering project teams, too, have the opportunity to attract international engineers to our shores. Training and development will start to adopt an international flavour that will hopefully inspire local young graduates to international aspirations and standards.
On the other hand, we also need to consider the fine print of good intentions of our offshore partners who wish to partner with us with the view to make South Africa and Africa improved places – bringing in their philosophies of mutual respect, sharing, reverence for and working with the environment for the benefit of earth and man. Just like they did in their western countries.
I am not convinced there will be a fair exchange. I suspect the expectation is that the African market is about to experience a boom in infrastructure development, and most M&As are aimed at using South Africa as a springboard into Africa, while they also tackle and reap economic benefit from the local South African market. I wonder how much opportunity there will be for local engineers to work on international projects outside of South Africa, in comparison to opportunities for externally based engineers working on local projects – reaping economic benefit, which was meant for South Africans in the first place.
There have been some companies that have ignored the flattering eyelashes of international business – some even called it ‘economic colonisation’. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether this is good or bad.
I am acutely aware that international confidence and investment improve job creation opportunities at home. But this is Africa, and African infrastructure engineering professionals know and understand the African soil. My view is that South Africa and South Africans ought to be the primary and secondary beneficiaries of the economic climate of the local land – South Africans first, black and white, Africa next, and then the ends of the earth. Our young engineers need training and sustainable jobs – young technicians and technologists are still struggling to find experiential training before they can graduate. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high.
But this draws my attention to the most important matter – due to the challenges associated with training in the work place, price-cutting, tendering pitfalls, the lack of project roll-out, and the incompetent client in South Africa, young South African engineers are practising engineering like an athlete who is running a marathon with a stone in his shoe. To add to the challenge, we are now competing on international frontiers, pitting ourselves against the best of China, India, Japan, and our good friends in the west. There is an urgent need, now more than ever, for young engineers to develop within themselves that intrinsic value that will make them viable and in demand in the local and international market.
To paraphrase Stephen Bantu Biko, “South African young engineer – you are on your own.” Young engineer, arise and take your place in the African sun. Or be swallowed up by an international market – you and your whole country.