When a provincial legislature’s portfolio committee on public works throws in the towel and calls on central government to take over the province’s public works , roads and transport department, civil engineers need to put up their hands and be counted. The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) is greatly concerned about the situation which jeopardises service delivery to the poorest of the poor.

With the North West Province in dire straits, with farmers in various provinces only getting their produce to markets with great difficulty because of appalling road conditions, businesses in towns like Ermelo losing money and hotels and guesthouses credibility because of a lack of water, etc., a lot is at stake that could see service delivery protests escalate into a situation that no South African even wants to contemplate.

Dr Chris Herold, Fellow of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) said, “A year or two ago desperate residents of dysfunctional towns clamoured to get the provinces to take over the local authourities’ failed functions. Now some of the provinces are also proving to be hollow husks that are devoid of capacity. Now zoom into another notch, i.e. national level.” He questions if it is reasonable to expect national government to be geared to meet this need. 

If taking into account that the departments in North West Province are service delivery departments, and that the national departments hardly have adequate numbers of civil engineering capacity to do their own bits, hasn’t it become time for drastic measures, such as Professor  Jonathan Jansen’s plea with government to declare the education situation a crisis ? only then would the patchwork solutions be eliminated and real solutions found to the root problem. Much the same can be said about the service delivery situation across the country, with Limpopo Province and the Eastern Cape Province also under administration. These situations are jeopardising the outcome of the National Development Plan.

Linked to the situation in all three tiers of government, it is acknowledged that the shortage of civil engineering professionals is a global phenomenon and that engineers with expertise will work across the globe to apply their knowledge. However, we should realise that South Africa, compared to other countries, lack engineering professionals. In China they have one qualified engineer for every 130 people, the US one for 389, the UK one for 311 people, Germany one for 217 and South Africa one for 3 166 people.

It is clear that South Africa needs civil engineering professionals. If one takes the current student numbers in civil engineering it is obvious that not too many more will qualify within ten years. The current first-years will, in the shortest time possible, only qualify within four to five years – without then being ‘experienced’. This while there is a big gap in the industry for civil engineering professionals with approximately ten years’ experience.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the number of school leavers who qualify for entering the civil engineering profession, is shrinking. The number of learners who qualify with an adequate symbol in Core Maths and Science to be accepted into universities and universities of technology is indeed small. Only about three percent of school leavers are in that category from which other disciplines/professions also source their students.

Recently Minister Blade Nzimande of Higher Education and Training expressed concern that “output targets in the human health scarce skills field will not be met by 2014” The exact concern is true of the civil engineering output at universities and universities of technology.

The number of applicants annually far exceeds the number of students who can be admitted due to facility restrictions at civil engineering departments. Manglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, put this into perspective: a university of technology received approximately 1 300 applications, about 400 of which had the minimum requirements in Core Maths and Science. Only 20% of these could be accepted as first-year students because they had the required symbol in Core Maths and Science, and also because of a lack of adequate facilities to accommodate them.

As far as the throughput at universities of technology level is concerned, about 20% of the students for the National Diploma obtain the Diploma within the prescribed three years and approximately a further 50% will qualify in four years. The universities also more or less follow this pattern. This seems to be a direct result of the standard of Maths taught at school level. As from 2013 some universities will be able to double their intake as a result of extensions to the physical facilities to accommodate students.

Addressing the issues

South Africa’s civil engineering professionals have proved that they can rise to a challenge. The 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums, roads and other infrastructure projects come to mind. Within two years they did the almost impossible. But there was political will behind the decisions of what needed to be done. Should government take that approach again, providing adequate procurement processes, capable officials to deal with tenders, etc., it is distinctly possible for the current civil engineering professionals to make it work. But then projects need to be rolled out sooner rather than later to avoid South Africa losing more valuable engineers, who, by the way, is absolutely sought-after in the world.

Meeting this challenge is a complex issue ranging from the physical facilities at universities, appropriate remuneration for lecturers, finding more lecturers to cope with the increased workload, etc. As far as artisan training is concerned, Dr Blade Nzimande’s efforts to increase these numbers are laudable. However, one has to caution that the training should fully answer to industry requirements, as many a young person has been disillusioned in the past when told that their training had been inappropriate for industry.    

Government’s Infrastructure Plan (Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission – PICC)

All the plans, including the National Development Plan, The New Growth Path, President Zuma’s State of the Nation address, Minister Gordhan’s Budget address, are excellent. The PICC had its conference with the Provincial and Local Government. The concern arises that many local authorities are not capable of running their own affairs. A large number of these do not even have a single qualified technical person in its employ, and that in the sphere of government primarily responsible for service delivery projects such as water, sanitation, waste management, etc. In his presidential address in February Dr Martin van Veelen, SAICE president for 2012, said, “In the Department of Water Affairs, where bulk water infrastructure planning occurs, only seven out of a senior management structure of 48 people are engineers.”  So yes, there are concerns if technical expertise or solution-finding has to bow to non-technical influences.

One needs civil engineering professionals to be employed and have the ‘freedom’ to make technical decisions without interference at administrative and political level. Ideally it would be a bonus if budget allocations for infrastructure projects could be administered/controlled by the technical people themselves – they are after all, the solution finders to infrastructure challenges.

So far the PICC has given the plan. Implementation, as with so many of our wonderful policies and guidelines, is a different matter. To realise these plans, the country needs civil engineering professionals who have the expertise, solutions and economic know-how in every relevant department at all three tiers of government, to take South Africa forward.

Perhaps civil engineering practitioners should ‘stake-out a take-over’ in some municipalities just to show how it can be made to work. In fact, government would do well to include civil engineering professionals as lobbyists for providing guidelines before embarking on project decisions in Parliament – as they have in the USA.   



  1. Great article. I just hope that the politicians take heed.
    I have had to close down a consulting Infrastructure practice and move in to the corporate world in a structural department, because of the current situation.

  2. Who is to take over? – in responce to this article two key issues were not adressed

    1. Employment/Affirmative action’s is the key to the current situation.

    Why: Most Municipalities replced technical managers with people who have minimum qualifications and experience. I attended a briefing session yeasterday where the technical manager of a waterboard did not know what I meant when the required design flow of a specific water main to a treatment plant was required – Example
    2. There are many private firms with skilled engineers who do nat have any work at this stage, in many cases these firms have laso not been paid for the little work they are getting – in some cases up to 6-7 months.
    Personally there is not a skill shortage, if you consider 300 service providers attending a briefing session – where a town hall is to small to accomodate all people attending.

    Iy you consider the cost of tendering – every company in South Africa can provide one engineer for every Municipality in the country at their cost and have tender documents that make sense, scope of works which is well defined, and projects implemented withing time and budgets.

    There is lots of proof to substanciate all of this – most Muncipalities have technical mangers who are really not even qualified to read a drawing.

  3. This is a very interesting article to show the government that what skills to we as civil engineers practioners has to uplift the infrastructure of the country. let not work service delivery politically rather lets work it technically. That’ the only solution for the way forward to a developed country.

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