/ 1 September 2008

Engineers warn minister

South Africa’s professional engineering councils, who were branded as racist gatekeepers in recent parliamentary public hearings, are warning the minister of public works that if bridges start to collapse she will be the one facing legal action.

Transformation is at the heart of a dispute between South Africa’s professional engineering councils and the Department of Public Works over the Built Environment Bill.

The professional engineering bodies are suspicious of the broad powers that the Bill gives to Public Works Minister Thoko Didiza and believe that the department wants to do away with the peer review system, which is used to register engineers and could lead to South Africa losing international recognition for its professionals.

The Department of Public Works wants to streamline the registration process for the built environment professions as they feel that there are not enough previously disadvantaged individuals entering the system and there is a view that white professionals who run the industry councils are acting as gatekeepers.

The built environment professions include architecture, project and construction management, engineering, landscape architecture, property valuation and quantity surveying.

The atmosphere at the public hearings into the Built Environment Bill held two weeks ago by the parliamentary portfolio committee on public works, has been described as “unprofessional”, “highly emotional” and a “witch hunt” by members of the built environment profession who attended the meetings.

At one point during question time, following a presentation by the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE), committee member Bhekiziziwe Radebe said the SAIEE presentation reflected the interests of a minority used to privilege, which they could not easily surrender.

Radebe said that this is why the gatekeeper function was so important, because there were huge profits in the pipeline for the engineering profession and that those who had become accustomed to benefiting from the old dispensation wouldn’t want to give up a share of that.

“They are saying that there is gatekeeping taking place by the old guard and that this gatekeeping is making us raise all these objections to the Bill, which is just not true,” said Stan Bridgens, business director of the SAIEE.

“We were told we were white racists and gatekeepers,” said Rod Harker, who was representing the SAIEE at the hearings. “We see the possibility for the lowering of standards and we can’t have incompetent people doing work.”

“The engineering councils are there to protect the public not the profession,” said Graham Pirie, CEO of the South African Institute for Consulting Engineers (SAICE). “They are there to protect users so that bridges don’t collapse.”

“Ultimately it looked like a witch hunt, and whatever we said was ridiculed,” said Dawie Botha from the South African Institute of Civil Engineers. “I have never been in a situation where a chairperson can behave like this lady did.”

Committee chairperson Thandi Tobius said that it is unfortunate if she has been perceived to be unprofessional, but insisted that she never insinuated in any way that some of the built environment professionals were acting as racist gatekeepers.

“There may have been insinuations made by other members, but not by me,” said Tobius. “I might have missed one or two insinuations, but nothing is stopping them from objecting to me.”

The engineering councils argue that the main shortfall in the supply of previously disadvantaged engineers is the school-leavers who achieve a high enough grade in mathematics to enter into engineering at a tertiary level, which was also raised by the Chamber of Mines at the hearings.

The SAIEE claims that only 8 000 matriculants per year had an adequate grade for mathematics at a matriculation level to enable them to enter university engineering studies and that this was the source of the backlog.

Trueman Goba, president of the Engineering Council of South Africa, told the hearings that the council had 29 000 registered engineers and in the last three years 56% of new registrations had been previously disadvantaged individuals.

“There is a shortage of previously disadvantaged engineers, but to fix it by putting incompetent people into the profession will just result in bridges falling down and people getting electrocuted,” said Bridgens. “While we acknowledge that there are problems, we don’t acknowledge that we need new legislation to fix them.”

“The Bill is of great concern, it is fundamentally flawed and should be rewritten,” said Bridgens. “The Bill doesn’t even address the safety of the public, while the old Act did.”

“To all of us, it is very clear that the department doesn’t know what they are talking about,” said Botha. “The minister could get sued if a bridge goes down.”

Problems with the Bill
The engineers don’t agree that the department of public works should take over the registration process of engineers, which used to be run by the Engineering Council of South Africa.

They fear that there will be a move to a more administrative process that will result in a tick-box system for registration and not the peer review system that is currently in place, where engineers are assessed by fellow professionals for competency.

If the peer review system is abandoned then it is feared that South Africa would lose its international accords and recognition abroad for its engineers. The engineers feel that the Bill gives too much power to the minister. For example, they say the Bill gives the minister power to exempt individuals from registration without having to provide a sound basis for the decision. They also claim the department of public works has not consulted sufficiently on this Bill.

The department of public works did not respond to an attempt by the Mail & Guardian for comment.