During an interview with Engineering News Online last week, Consulting Engineers of South Africa (Cesa) CEO Lefadi Makibinyane asserted in strident commentary that the success of government’s national infrastructure plan would hinge on the degree to which it included private sector organisations specialising in the built environment, such as Cesa, in the planning and management of build programmes.
The former Tshwane Department of Public Works and Infrastructure Development strategic executive director held that government’s acknowledgement of its internal shortage of engineering skills was critical to successful infrastructure roll-out.
Describing infrastructure as a catalytic force required to drive the economy, he said, since 1994, there had been a lack of emphasis by government on [internal] skills retention, adding that it was not too late for it to correct its lack of oversight on that score.
“I don’t understand it when people talk about the lack of skills in engineering, in particular, when consulting engineering and engineering firms are not overloaded with work.
“I believe that there’s a sufficient pool of engineering skills, but it’s not being well [leveraged] because government is fooling itself by saying that it has internal capacity, which we know it doesn’t. I don’t see the churning of work by our members and it’s about time that government realised that. Government must be misadvised.
“I’m running an association that’s willing [to contribute] and wants to leave a legacy. I want to work with government and be their ally,” he maintained.
Makibinyane’s comments came days after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) released its pre-election policy manifesto, which outlined the party’s intention to institutionalise long-term planning, integration and coordination capacity within the State to drive consolidated industrialisation and infrastructure development programmes for inclusive growth and job creation.
Among its five-year objectives were the improvement of the State’s skills and capabilities and the establishment and strengthening of partnerships with the private sector, trade unions and community structures to ensure delivery.
“Additional engineering, project planning and financial management skills will be brought into the State, and government will fast-track implementation, reduce regulatory delays, improve public and private sector capacity, combat private sector corruption, collusion and profiteering, and ensure coordinated action across all spheres of government,” the manifesto read.
The ANC outlined that it would also look to establish institutional mechanisms and build the necessary capacity within the State to undertake long-term planning, drawing, where necessary, on the expertise that existed in wider society.
Internal skills deficiency
While lauding the manifesto as “ambitious, which is a good thing, because you need to aim high to shoot high”, the Cesa head iterated that what was fundamental to achievement of these objectives was tighter planning and management, which had thus far been “elusive”.
“The only way this will happen is if government realises that it doesn’t have the technical skills or the capacity [to realise its infrastructure-related goals] and listens to willing bodies like Cesa, which have the proposals to make on how this capacity can be increased.
“As far as infrastructure is concerned, I’m taking it very seriously, as there’s no better adviser than Cesa as far as infrastructure planning [is concerned]. I want to see my members in the centre of that planning and assisting government to create capacity in the long term,” he noted.
Makibinyane told Engineering News Online that, as his prior efforts to engage government through National Treasury had failed, he would now consider approaching government through the ANC.
“Perhaps [I’ll approach government] through Luthuli House rather than Treasury because, for some reason, some of the departments have become quite dysfunctional and are really not listening.
“I believe that if we come up with a solution, it is more likely to be taken up if it’s presented [directly] to the political leadership,” he said.
In addition, the manner in which government had, in the past, procured consulting engineering skills was lacking, as the industry had been “invaded by tenderpreneurs” who had registered companies, but who weren’t engineers themselves.
“That must go. I want to clean up the industry,” Makibinyane stated, noting that the way companies’ are registered and interact with government needed to change.
“You can’t practice as a lawyer if you don’t have a law degree, but people are taking advantage of engineering. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is running an engineering firm [without] the qualification,” he maintained.
Planning vs Implementation
Comments from other industry organisations largely echoed Makibinyane’s position on enhanced private sector and government collaboration, with the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) emphasising the importance of implementation rather than protracted periods of planning.
“What will make the [ANC’s policy] objectives meaningful this time around is implementation, which will be the entire test of the next government. While planning is always important, it needs to expedite projects and maintain them within costs,” Sacci CEO Neren Rau told Engineering News Online.
The Steel Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), while declining to comment directly on the ANC’s policy, said there existed an often under-appreciated symbiosis between business and government.
“With the National Development Plan having been endorsed by both Cabinet and the current ruling party, it should be possible to register significant progress on the rail and other infrastructure projects within a five-year period, if the necessary political will and cooperation among respective stakeholders exists,” commented Seifsa executive director Kaizer Nyatsumba.
By: Natalie Greve