Construction World

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) is perturbed that South African civil engineering practitioners are once again being ignored in favour of engineers from abroad — Cuban technicians and engineers will continue to exchange skills within the department’s Water Programme. Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation (DWS), Pamela Tshwete, has signed an agreement with Cuba’s Institute of National Hydraulic Resources (INHR) to extend the RSA-Cuba Cooperation agreement to 2023.

In May 2017 Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, defended the decision by saying, “Thanks to the Cuban programme, black engineers who could previously not obtain accreditation in the water industry, have now been accredited”.

The first question that arises is whether the Cuban technicians and engineers are registered as professionals with the Engineering Council of South Africa, a process that every South African technician, technologist and engineer have to do in order to obtain accreditation and being registered as a professional engineering practitioner. This time around the DWS’ media statement said, “The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) also committed to speedily process requests from Cuban engineers to be recognised as professional specialists. Currently ECSA does not recognise the Cubans’ qualifications and the type of work they are doing in the country because they are not registered with them.”

Deputy Minister Tshwete also made the statement, “We want to acquire as much skills as possible and Cubans are the best teachers in the field. We want to capacitate our engineers so they can help the country address its own water challenges, particularly now that old engineers are leaving the field.” To put this statement into an interesting context: In 2013 TimesLive wrote, “Cuba has massive water problems. According to the Canadian International Development Research Centre, its water and sanitation services have deteriorated badly, resulting in an increase in waterborne diseases.” Perhaps these ‘best teachers’ have over the past few years succeeded in turning this situation around?

South Africa is signatory to the Sydney, Dublin and Washington Accords, which is dependent on a substantial peer-review system for professional registration with ECSA, and which enables South African engineering practitioners to work extensively globally, specifically in neighbouring states.

South Africa has world-class civil engineering professionals in hydrology and hydraulics and water engineering in general. There are many experts such as Neil Macleod, who received the 2014 Stockholm Industry Water Award for “Most progressive water utility in Africa” on behalf of eThekwini Water & Sanitation, in the Durban Municipality, South Africa. The utility was awarded for its transformative and inclusive approach to providing water and sanitation services. Manglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, states, “Our engineers are world-renowned and very well recognised globally, but we don’t seem to be having the same favour here in South Africa.”

South Africa’s sluggish economy has severely impacted the civil engineering and construction industry, with retrenchment the order of the day. Manglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, explains, “SAICE is confident that many a civil engineering practitioner, who knows South Africa’s water challenges inside out, would have been willing and available to assist the department in rural communities, and in national and provincial infrastructure departments. The money spent on establishing and accommodating the Cuban engineers in South Africa could possibly be better spent by re-looking current salaries and working environments in these areas to the benefit of South African civil engineering practitioners, thereby creating sustainable jobs within South Africa.”

Pillay emphasises, “Our engineers need to get first choice. We have excellent, experienced engineers both locally, as well as those who are currently working outside of South Africa. Government needs to make strides to attract South African engineers back to South Africa, and back into our government sector where they are most needed. If there is a shortage thereafter, then the whole world can join us!”

He continues, “On the issue of deployment and looking at the above tasks, one could ask how language would affect efficiency in capacity building through training of staff – are these the non-existent technical staff in rural local authorities? The Cuban engineers also have to adapt to performing and living in a democracy, as Cuba is a communist country. Learning the culture and the South African environment could prove to be extremely difficult.

“Having to face these challenges, overcome them, and adjust to them could take at least 18 months – that out of a contract period of a few years. Because of these challenges, the Cuban engineers previously employed at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and several government departments in Gauteng, were simply not used on projects, and were marginalised in the work environment. Some complained that they played video games and downloaded stuff off the internet all day – they were not incorporated into the South African engineering teams.” This is a wasteful approach, not only in the context of money lost for South African engineers, but also for the Cubans, away from their families and with little constructive to do.

As SAICE and other voluntary industry associations have pointed out over the past five years, there is a serious shortage of technically qualified managers in all three tiers of government, which is of great concern. However, bringing in Spanish-speaking engineers is not a solution, as their work spans only a couple of years. Their presence will also not address the issue of inappropriately qualified and inexperienced persons appointed in technical positions in government.

Pillay furthermore argues, “Importing Cuban engineers has a possible unintended cost, i.e. the lack of training and developmental opportunities for our own young engineers.

“It appears the weakness in government structures is the lack of knowledge on how to identify projects and how to spend the allocated money. This is evident from the lack of structures, processes and systems in government to manage infrastructure spend. Then there is the cauldron of unsuitably qualified individuals, ineffectually occupying technical engineering posts, nervously managing engineering projects, and second-guessing the allocation of funds. It is necessary to re-install appropriately qualified and professionally registered technical people back into the system to plan, identify, procure and manage large-spend engineering projects.”

The National Development Plan, and the State of the Nation addresses over the past years, placed emphasis on job creation and infrastructure development. This affords SAICE the opportunity to engage with government, and to serve as the honest and non-biased broker for civil engineering expertise to be installed back into the system.

Pillay concludes, “SAICE is seriously perturbed about the import of Cuban engineers and once again implores government, and specifically the Department of Water and Sanitation, to further engage with us (SAICE) to find solutions. Together we can solve South Africa’s water problems.”

*Issued by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering

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