A close friend and colleague in the industry chided me over my views of our government. And because the wounds of a sincere friend are faithful and can be trusted, I took his reproach to heart. After some days of pondering and introspection, I have come to the conclusion that I may need to refocus, despite my delight at making Charlies of our politicians. However, they do a good job all by themselves. There I go again – sorry. 

But like the nature of man, engineers and the infrastructure and construction engineering industry are not all virtuous and wonderful. And we tend to air our laundry in the public domain. 

We have over recent years brought dishonour to ourselves, in full view of government and the public. The price collusion issue involving the big five construction companies over the soccer stadiums has brought the reputation of our profession into question. More recently, Gauteng MEC for Roads and Transport, Ismail Vadi, vowed to blacklist all companies doing shoddy work. This was after Vadi’s department was summoned to appear before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), to explain why the department underspent by more than R172m. A large portion of the underspend was due to termination of road infrastructure contracts due to non-performance, late implementation and late completion of projects.

We may debate that the general administration, political and economic climate is conducive to delinquent behaviour, with the tendering rules what they are – I personally think that the best way to secure the worst service providers is by tendering. There are other issues that we must contend with, like BBBEE arrangements, transformation, lack of skills in the public sector (Vadi’s operational budget was underspent by R44m!) But I digress. And it is public knowledge that there is a lack of political unity among ministers and within the ANC.

As an aside, given that engineering professionals are intellectuals and problem solvers, l wonder whether unscrupulous professionals and companies prefer a client in the centre of this chaos, so that they may always have the upper hand in the deal. 
 
But the point I am making is that the industry is experiencing challenges that are complex, multifaceted and integrated – aggravated by business- and personality-driven motives and agendas. The industry appears to be in a complicated tangle – that will take a few years to unknot. 

The Glenhaven Secondary School matric class of 1993 celebrated its 20 year class reunion recently – it was a time of celebration and for assessment of roads not taken. I was pleasantly surprised at how awkward little caterpillars have transformed into beautiful butterflies. How we under-estimate people sometimes! Teenage friends, who were once speckled and incongruent with the world, have progressed into confident and influential individuals in society, and are contributors in the world economy – at least six of my classmates, who are professionals, have chosen to ply their trade outside of South Africa. 

While it was an awkward time of development, as it is for all teenagers, I remember my adolescent years with nostalgia and fondness. It was a time of adventure, discovery and risky living with a risk-free attitude. I enjoyed liberties with little care for where the resources might come from or what they may cost – spending resources wantonly and without responsibility or accountability.

This is the mystery of South Africa. 

Our new democracy is 19 years old, and the behaviour of our government and our economy appears to be like that of a teenager – emotionally tangled, complex and what might appear now to be wanton. But this is part of growing up, and it requires a few more years for self-actualisation. At some point this teenager is going to mature into an attractive adult. The question begs itself: Will our present young engineers – with the preparation given to them by senior engineers and the engineering industry – be ready to take full advantage of the opportunities that the then economy will present to us? 

 


 

2 Comments

  1. A wonderfully written article! We cannot allow the lack of experience of our democracy to exucse the current malpractice of the government. It is imperative to this country’s sustainable long term future lies with engineering professionals (no disrespect to other reputable and important professionals). However, this country’s politicians continue to make promises without consulting engineers – the ultimate individuals responsible for service delivery. We will continue to struggle if engineering skills are not given the authority to make decisions in line with our responsibilities. Politicians, HR and finance can no longer have such a loud voice in engineering practice! Our industry needs to aggressively take the rightful position in society for the better of all concerned. I thank you for the opportunity!

  2. Eng Pillay

    I work for a small consultancy firm and part of my duties is to evaluate tenders, and i have been doing a lot of those. I dont agree with you that tendering gets you the worst service provider as a process. Though i had fair good idea of evaluation process, i fine tuned these to be in line with the CIDB Best Practice Guidelines as far as possible. I think the process of tendering is a fairly transparent empowering one that brings both the sincere upcoming contractor and the established one the opportunity to bid on even platform. There are checks and balances, references, individual line item and rate checks, personnel and plant capacity and ownership arrangements. If some of my colleagues are not following through with the exhaustiveness of tender evaluation as prescribed at the minimum by CIDB that can hardly be the process fault. And if at the end of the exhaustive evaluation exercise the report is discarded in a local government office while a new comer is smuggled in to beat the system it can hardly be the fault of the process of tendering. We have seen that even where direct appointments are made, there has tended to be greed involved and one cannot allow for a monopoly of projects by one contractor simply because the agency seems him to be the only one who has performed well in the past. It may be good for private sector with limited interest but certainly not for government with an agenda of growing the industry and other secondary objectives.

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