“… It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.”
Invictus, a poem by William Ernest Henley
Several months ago, I asked my staff at SAICE National Office why they work at SAICE. At the end of our discussion, three convictions surfaced. The first being that we don’t work at SAICE, we serve. We serve South Africa’s civil engineering professionals because we believe in the power of civil engineering, which makes a positive impact in the socio-economic state of our nation. Secondly, we believe that you as our members chose a career in civil engineering, because you believe that you make a difference in the lives of your families, communities and our country. Finally we believe that you fight for a good cause – you are in a battle that is worth fighting, and in serving you, we at National Office hold your arms up until you prevail.
Becoming a civil engineer is one of my greatest accomplishments. Every time I say that I am a civil engineer, there is a hint of integrity, prestige and dignity associated with that title. I am a civil engineer.
As students, hearing the triumphs of civil engineering, we develop hopes and aspirations to make a difference – delivery of water, sanitation, transportation, schools, health and other vital services to communities. And this is true; we use the principles of maths and science and apply technology to the forces and resources of nature, and in collaborating with our natural heritage we improve the quality of our environment and our people. It is a noble calling to be a civil engineer.
When we started studying civil engineering, we did believe in our hearts that we could make a difference in society, but as we are buffeted in our desire for progress, we tend to become disenchanted with our purpose. In the work place, projects seem to lose their human elements, and while wealth creation is important, it starts to dominate and distort our initial resolute passion for advancing society with our skills.
It is true that some of the wealthiest people in the world are associated with the construction industry, but Mammon should be second to serving society. Civil engineering is not a job, it is a position of serving – it is a high calling to take care of the welfare of society, and this satisfaction needs to become manifest in our vocation. Before we build infrastructure as tributes to great men, enterprises and regimes (and we must do these things) we need to prioritise the needs of the least amongst us. This is the ultimate purpose of being a civil engineer.
South Africa’s unemployment rate hovers just under 30 percent, and nearly a quarter of South Africans live at or near the poverty line. A United Nations report recently revealed that 1.4 million South African children live in homes that rely on dirty streams for drinking water, 1.5 million do not have access to flushing toilets, and 1.7 million live in shacks with neither washing nor cooking facilities. Almost six million South Africans have HIV/AIDS, and the country’s young population is growing rapidly: nearly 40 percent of the population was born after 1990.
“… there are too many of us who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard …”
Barack Obama, Eulogy to Nelson Mandela
The current social climate in South Africa is a call to arms for civil engineers. The occasion summons the services of civil engineers from the soil of South Africa. Let us make Madiba’s life’s work our own.