THE CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), Manglin Pillay, is an incorrigible optimist but believes the spending of trillions of rands in infrastructure the government promises, including R840bn by the end of next year, is not going to happen any time soon.
The government simply does not have the capacity, he says.
And although government makes all the right noises about bringing technically qualified people back into the system to help with the roll-out of infrastructure programmes the evidence that this is happening is “very isolated and rare”.
“The problem is still that things are handled by inappropriately qualified people who don't know what they're doing,” he says.
Ministers of departments like finance, public works, local government and economic development have acknowledged the need to improve capacity, but little is being done.
“There's a call from the departments of public works and local government to employ professionally registered engineers, but civil servants are still using unregistered engineers. They're hiring unqualified people to do technical work.”
As a result, people without appropriate skills are adjudicating lucrative tenders. Tendering processes are flawed and engineering companies lose millions of rands tendering for projects that are shelved or given to ridiculously unqualified competitors.
“I've just spoken to the director of a consulting company who says their hit rate for tenders is 2%," says Mr Pillay. “A guy with 20 years of training and experience, whose professional rate is R2,000 an hour, spends months preparing a tender but wins only two out of a hundred. That is deplorable. There is a huge problem in our procurement and tendering processes.”
Many companies no longer tender for government infrastructure projects. “They'd rather just tackle the private market.”
Civil servants who should be driving infrastructure projects do nothing for fear of cocking up.
“Because they'd rather not do anything that gets them into trouble they don't do anything at all,” says Mr Pillay.
This is reflected in the SAICE's infrastructure 2011 report card, a barometer of infrastructure based on an internationally recognised rating system. It gives a D minus to most municipal infrastructure, just one notch up from defunct.
“Almost beyond tipping point”
Provincial roads, water and sewerage systems are in this category, and deteriorating by the day with continued lack of maintenance, says Mr Pillay. “It's a crisis.”
Have we reached tipping point?
“We're almost beyond tipping point.”
The problem is a simple one, he says. There are dangerously few qualified engineers at local government level. There is no shortage of ministers talking sensibly about the need to, as Mr Pillay puts it, “employ technically qualified people back into the system”.
But at town council level the reverse often happens.
“The Nelson Mandela metro (Port Elizabeth) is down to its last engineer, who is about to be sacked. Without properly qualified engineers there will be no infrastructure development, he says.
“It's a no-brainer.
“Municipalities used to have what they called town engineers. The new system kicked those guys out. We need them back.
“How do you deliver engineering services, roads, water, sewerage systems or any other infrastructure when you don't have an engineer? Engineers are central to infrastructure service delivery, but numerous municipalities don't have a single engineer.”
Those hiring consultant engineers often subject them to micro-management by clueless officials with political agendas.
“Our members who are consulting in local government are hampered by lots of political interference. They don't have sufficient authority and power to control projects. Very often there is political interference in the projects.
“What we require is appropriate authority for our engineers to get on with the job of service infrastructure delivery. Political interference stalls projects.” And, he says, it costs ratepayers millions.
The interference is “often” motivated by corruption. Officials insist that private companies they're involved with do the work, and will delay or even derail projects accordingly.
This is why project deadlines are so often missed.
“When politicians get too closely involved with infrastructure delivery you very often get unskilled organisations getting the work. That pushes the project cost up and brings in more delays. Then you've got an unqualified character sitting there in the municipality managing the project.”
There has been a notable increase in political interference “with Mangaung in mind”, he says. Projects are being held hostage by political point-scoring, jockeying for position and factionalism.
Because government does not have the capacity to identify projects, roll them out, ensure proper procurement processes are followed and do operation and maintenance, South Africa is losing its engineering capacity. In a country that is crying out for infrastructure there is not enough for our engineers to do.
Consulting companies are getting rid of engineers. Mr Pillay mentions a company that recently “released” 15 engineers.
“That is totally unacceptable. In a country where the focus should be on engineering service delivery we should be employing engineers, not releasing them.”
The SAICE is a lobby group. Its job is to make government ministers and officials understand what needs to be done, and then help them do it.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Mr Pillay insists it is making progress. “A big problem is the constant changing of ministers and directors general,” he says.
“We will make a noise with the minister, and he will adhere to it and start rolling out something.
“Six months later, he's fired, and we've got to start with the new guy, making the same noises all over again.”
Churning at the level of both ministers and senior civil servants has left the government short of “institutional capacity”, he says.
To build up and preserve this capacity, national, provincial and local government departments need engineers at senior levels.
“They must remain there for at least five to eight years so the institutional memory of projects, spending on projects, operation and maintenance, is there. We have to have engineers occupying senior posts to keep that institutional memory of projects.”
Mr Pillay, 36, qualified as a civil engineer at Wits University, and spent a year working for national government before deciding it was “too slow”. He then worked as a consultant engineer for seven years before joining SAICE in 2010.
He says there is a danger that by the time government gets its act together and begins rolling out projects, the country's engineering capacity will be seriously depleted.
“There is a five-year window period after which the current crop of senior engineers will have gone into retirement and many younger engineers will have left the country,” he says.
“There will be a major void in the engineering sector.”
* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times