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Professionalising the state is the only way to develop infrastructure

Infrastructure development has long been hailed as the key for economic growth, even long

before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the recent global phenomenon has indeed increased the urgency for economic reform, the question remains whether this is realistically attainable in the South African context, where efforts towards infrastructure development seem to continually fail, with more talk than action.

Government has chosen infrastructure development as a driver for economic growth because of the wider community benefits to be gained from functional infrastructure, as well as the potential for job creation in the construction and development process. However, too often the latter takes preference over the former, with more focus on creating jobs in the short term, rather than focussing on the long-term sustainability and quality of the infrastructure assets.

Despite public perception that local procurement processes are riddled with corruption and tenderpreneuring, the problem is not necessarily that the government has ill intent, but that it is ill-informed. A lack of technical expertise is holding the government back from taking sustainable steps towards improved infrastructure delivery. We need to assist in professionalising the state to enable the competent procurement of infrastructure services that are complex and technologically advanced. There are huge advances to be gained by making use of new-age technological tools, but guidance is required if the government is to effectively use these tools to its – and our – advantage.

This progress needs to occur sooner rather than later. When we think of further delaying actioned, empowered state capability, the term “brain drain” comes to mind. Frustrated by the lack of tangible projects (as opposed to the ever-moving target of “pipeline projects”), many of our country’s best and most-needed engineers are leaving the country to go  somewhere where infrastructure development is actioned more than just discussed.

How can we move the built environment industry forward towards brighter horizons and towards an improved economic outlook?

We need to change the perception that using professional consulting engineers is “too expensive”. We need to encourage a culture where value is considered over cost. And we need to use our private-sector expertise to capacitate the public sector towards improved procurement processes, thereby creating an “informed client” who knows what to look for, and what to expect.

Some progress has been made in this regard, but it is not enough. Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) has been proactive in connecting the department of public works and infrastructure to a network of highly qualified engineers who are looking for work and are ready to play their part in South Africa’s development.

Minister Patricia de Lille has put together a response team, but we need to see a timeline with key deliverables in order to see this as “action” rather than “talk”.

Finally, we need to ensure that the engineers who are ultimately appointed to help with the state’s technical expertise are professional, high-quality service providers who are held accountable for their conduct. This is the only way to ensure that the progress we make is not lost to unprofessional and unethical parties. 

CESA looks forward to further leveraging its role as industry body to ensure that the right resources are deployed to drive the development which South Africa so desperately needs.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Chris Campbell
Chris Campbell is chief executive of Consulting Engineers South Africa

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