Author : Manglin Pillay PrEng

A good name is more desirable than great riches …

(Proverbs 22:1)

On the morning of Ahmed Kathrada’s death, the renowned and respected cartoonist Nanda Sooben took to social media asking, “Are there any good men left?”

After the recent cabinet reshuffle, I asked our members if SAICE should take a stand. Some of our members have encouraged SAICE to engage. SAICE’s young members, particularly, wish SAICE to be heard, and seen to be heard on the matter.

Other members are quiet – and I respect that, too. SAICE has always cherished the complexity of views that emanate from our diverse membership. This is the brilliance of our own democracy. But I must make the point that Elie Wiesel made – indifference, while it is tempting, is a peril. Wiesel argues that, because it benefits the aggressor and not the victim, indifference is a friend of the enemy.

At the recent ICE Conference in Cape Town (April 2017), Yunus Ballim PrEng, Vice Chancellor of Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, and professor of civil engineering at Wits University, on a platform with distinguished colleagues Sundran Naicker PrEng and Paul Jowitt CEng, articulated two gems that appealed to my civil engineering sense of social justice. He said:

To be a civil engineer, is to be fundamentally engaged in critical matters of the human condition; and for civil engineers to avoid politics – to not be involved in politics – is flawed and imaginary. Civil engineers must intervene in places of power and spaces of powerlessness.

Civilution expressly requires of us to be honest with introspection. In the malaise of our country’s past, SAICE practised great circumspection when sharing views outside of cold concrete civil engineering. At the turn of the millennium, some of our members from previously disadvantaged communities reluctantly joined SAICE, because SAICE was “deafeningly quiet” during the apartheid years, when they needed us most. This is why many black civil engineering practitioners still claim that SAICE is a “white” organisation. The culture of SAICE, supported by our membership statistics, shows otherwise. But we shouldn’t miss the point. SAICE should not repeat its mistakes, as we will be judged severely for it in future, in both moral and metaphysical terms.

I attended the funeral of Donald Macleod PrEng, who was City Engineer of Durban from 1976 to 1992. Millions of people enjoy safe sanitation in Durban because of Don’s leadership. At the memorial I noticed the humility and understated elegance of the full life of a good man. In his SAICE presidential address in 1987, he said, “We should never see the fruits of technology as being of greater importance than people. Our respect for the dignity and immeasurable value of the human being should always be upheld.” He was known as a leftist in the nationalist climate of the day. As a white civil engineer, he was known for rescuing black people during the Cator Manor uprising, and delivering sanitation to black communities in a time when policies and nationalist establishment dictated otherwise.

Having worked with his son, Neil Macleod PrEng, at SAICE, the Macleod name is in the company of those bastions of social justice mentioned in this article – so, too, is the name of every civil engineering practitioner who abides by the traditions and tenets of this incredible profession.

I am aware that SAICE is a nonpartisan, impartial and unprejudiced voice for civil engineering professionals. Our objectives are the growth and development of our members, and the promotion of the science and practice of civil engineering and the advancement of the civil engineering profession. Ahmed Kathrada would have agreed with us and then said, “… I express the hope that you will choose the correct way.”

So what is the correct way? My personal answer to the icon would be along these lines:

“Our involvement is unattached to any individual, political party or schisms in party politics. It is principally associated with good governance and the role of state in creating conditions for democratic process, and social justice in South Africa. Civil engineering serves all South Africans. Recent instances of dysfunctional and unaccountable behaviour in parliament, as well as unclear reasons for ministerial appointments, cause concern about our government’s ability to properly respond to the development, infrastructure and socio-economic well-being of South Africa. I am a civil engineer. I protest for the South Africa I love, because I believe in its resilience.”

With sword in one hand and pen in the other, my answer to Nanda Sooben is, “Yes! There are still good men and women left amongst 52 million South Africans. We have 13 000 of them – we are civil engineering professionals.”

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