I recently gave somebody a ride to Diepsloot, which is a neglected township outside of Steyn City and Dainfern, two larney, well secured, northern Johannesburg suburbs. When we arrived to where my hitchhiker was headed, I could not believe my eyes when I saw several rats the size of cats scurrying amongst the squalor. I pointed this out to the person. He laughed an embarrassed laugh, and then told me that a few years ago rats attacked a newborn baby. The baby died from the rat bite wounds. Near the small tin shanty house that we arrived at, little children were playing adjacent to standing effluent of some sort. Needless to say, the water was seething with sinister things. Those vile vermin had just splashed through the nasty puddles, before disappearing into some dark crevice.
How did we get it so wrong?
The political establishment of South Africa has identified the key socio-economic challenges our country needs to contend with. The challenges are commonly known as the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment. I have heard this muttered out of the mouths of unsavoury characters in the guise of intelligence when they are simply kowtowing political favour and popularity. It sounds erudite, but unaccompanied by real solutions and implementation, it is hot air. Colourless radical economic transformation needs some kind of definition and direction. It should result in investment in innovation that leads to the creation of new viable goods and services. Radical economic transformation needs to raise the standard of living, not through commercial activity alone, but it should conserve community and family values, and sustain our natural environmental heritage.
Before radical economic transformation could even be embarked upon fully, we need to start with basic infrastructure – every South African should have access to water supply, energy, communication infrastructure, medical facilities, schools, housing, roads and a plot of land for domestic-scale agrarian activity. All of this requires engineering practitioners. Engineering plays a critical role in alleviating these challenges and supporting economic growth and development. The extent to which the profession could assist development, however, is largely dependent on government’s capacity to (1) commit financial resources for infrastructure service delivery, (2) develop capacity to manage infrastructure engineering projects, and (3) create a favourable climate for business. I thought these links are well known – apparently not.
We have long argued whether South Africa has sufficient professional engineering capacity. We interviewed about 20 senior experts in the profession with some combined 500+ years of experience. At a macro level, we asked for the ideal engineer/technical staff ratio to deliver on projects. On average it varied between 1:4 for consulting engineering, and 1:8 for both the construction and public sectors. The Department of Higher Education and Training’s statistics for university engineering output shows that our academic institutions are in fact producing 1:4. Considering the number of professionals registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa, however, the ratio is 3:1. I appreciate this is at a cursory level, but it resonates well with our SAICE branch visits where we are finding that university of technology students are struggling to find in-service training during their studies. The struggle continues when they are unable to secure initial professional development work after graduation. They are then faced with the conundrum – I can’t get work because I have no experience. But that is another article altogether.
The horrific conditions under which our people live is bewildering. I would love to take some engineering CEOs, Ministers and DGs, and live with them in shacks for two days with just R20 in our pockets, so that we can know who we design for. These township conditions are totally unacceptable for a country that has money, and world-class civil engineering and built environment skills, coupled with sufficient goodwill to deliver decent, safe housing and sustainable economic opportunities, albeit at a small scale in developing communities. But the point is that it is possible. We really need to make it happen, and to win the politicians over to our side – we have some serious convincing and storytelling to do.