Opinion piece: Solving service delivery problems re-engineering infrastructure leadership

The governments of the African Union need to embrace engineering, so that they can build the Africa everybody wants.

By Yankho Banda, Marie Ashpole and Godfrey Ramalisa


Engineering IS the face of service delivery! It is at the heart of infrastructure development, such as energy, water (including wastewater and sanitation), transportation (including roads and traffic), housing, healthcare (hospitals, clinics), and education (schools, libraries). To ensure appropriate service delivery at the required standards, the reality is that ONLY engineers can make that happen! Accelerating the reduction of poverty and inequality will require unlocking the full potential of the engineering profession through empowerment at appropriate levels.

“No country or society today would succeed without the adoption of engineering at some level. Engineering and engineers have had an enormous impact on every aspect of our modern lives.” Christopher McFadden.


In the launch speech of the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, it is stated, “It is a plan for a better future; a future in which no person lives in poverty, where no one goes hungry, where there is work for all, a nation united in the vision of our Constitution.” South Africa’s economic and social development challenges could be addressed if service delivery projects are rolled out, as construction is one of the ways in which large numbers of people could be employed in a relatively short time, while simultaneously providing a huge injection into the economy. This can only be achieved by effective roll-out of service delivery projects.   

The primary purpose of the infrastructure departments and local government, is to efficiently deliver, operate and maintain infrastructure. Other service departments are there only to support infrastructure and service delivery. 

It is important to remember that, in the global economy, the state of a nation’s infrastructure provides one of the best indicators of its likely prosperity. As a result of the lack of technical capacity in infrastructure departments across national, provincial and local government, as well as State-owned enterprises, the country suffered poor delivery and maintenance of infrastructure.  This resulted in infrastructure that became dilapidated or unusable.

In his first Sate of the Nation address, the Honourable President Ramaphosa pointed out, “As some of the projects are taking time to get off the ground and to enhance our efforts, I will assemble a team to speed up implementation of new projects, particularly water projects, health facilities and road maintenance.” With reference to the actions that need to be taken to realise the objectives as set out in the NDP, it will be necessary for this team

to study the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) Infrastructure Report Card for South Africa 2017, in order to understand exactly what the necessary actions should be. These actions can ONLY be effected by engineers.


Problem statements

Problem 1.0

The National Development Plan 2030: Our Future—Make It Work (2012), seeks to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality, and identifies the triple challenge of high poverty, inequality, and unemployment as major challenges for the country. 

“Despite improvements in access to drinking water, more than one-third (37,6%) of households rated the quality of water services they received as average or poor in 2018, while 59.1% did not pay for the water they received. The percentage of households that did not pay for water services has steadily increased from 50.8% in 2009 to 59% in 2018.” [The General Household Survey (GHS) 2018 released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA)].

The results of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the second quarter (Q2) of 2019, released by Stats SA, indicate that the official unemployment rate increased by 1.4 percentage points to 29% compared to Q1 of 2019. The number of unemployed persons increased by 455 000 to 6.7 million in Q2 of 2019 compared to Q1 of 2019, which saw an increase of 476 000 in the labour force.


The youth aged 15 to 24 years are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market as the unemployment rate among this age group was 55.2% in Q1 of 2019. Among graduates in this age group, the unemployment rate was 31% during this period compared to 19.5% in Q4 of 2018 – an increase of 11.4 percentage points quarter-on-quarter. However, the graduate unemployment rate is still lower than the rate among those with other educational levels. This means that education is still the key to these young people’s prospects, should the South African labour market improve.

Add to this the fact that hundreds of students from universities of technology cannot find experiential training jobs in order to complete their diplomas; thus there are ⅔s trained persons sitting at home being unable to apply for a job — and government has invested in two years’ funding for them!


Problem 2.0

Currently, engineering is not adequately regulated. It depends on those elected to power and heading infrastructure departments, ’allowing’ engineers and built environment professionals to serve communities, while political favours and interference are common.


In the consultant practice of engineering, Government is dependent on industry’s self-regulation, which is inadequate, and which provides opportunities for the unqualified to tender for engineering services. It also leads to improper financial, legal and political interference in projects.

Many engineering practitioners are advocating for the institution of an office of Engineer-General to realise the implementation of the objectives of the NDP 2030, using suitably qualified, competent and dedicated engineering professionals. Furthermore, South Africans in general are yearning for suitable candidates, in this case engineers to address the root cause of the lack of or poor service, and unreliable public infrastructure delivery. 



Problem 3.0

If one looks at the South African Constitution, in particular Chapter 9 institutions that guard our democracy, all professions are included, except engineering, which is the key solution-driven profession hugely impacting South Africa’s economy and addressing social development challenges — through the implementation of service delivery infrastructure. Some of these Chapter 9 institutions include: the Auditor-General, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Electoral Commission, the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission, and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, and Independent Authority to Regulate Broadcasting. The omission of engineering is one of the imperfections in the developing South African Constitution.


Other institutions have been established to promote good planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and corrective practices in government, except for engineering. Established institutions are Accountant-General, State Attorney/Attorney-General, B-BBEE Commission, Competition Commission, Chief Inspector, Chief Procurement Officer, Health Ombudsman, Intelligence-General, National Planning Commission, Statistician-General, etc.


Problem 4.0

Political interference is negatively impacting local authorities and cities, especially those governed by coalitions. In the past few years, South Africa has seen an increase in the number of protests (with issues varying, but mostly concerning lack of infrastructure, business opportunities and employment prospects), threatening economic shutdown and South Africa’s hard-earned democracy. (Auditor-General’s report).


This further highlight the weakness in government structures, which appears to be the lack of knowledge on how to identify projects and how to spend the allocated budgets appropriately on projects. This is evident from the lack of structures, processes and systems in government to manage infrastructure spend. This is further exacerbated by unsuitably qualified individuals, ineffectually occupying technical engineering posts, nervously managing engineering projects, and second-guessing the allocation and spending of funds. These non-technical officials overseeing infrastructure budgets, further adjudicate tenders, a definitive setting-up for failure in all aspects of a project. 


In line with political interference, the role of human resources management, legal and finance divisions cannot reign supreme in infrastructure development; that is the role of the engineer.


Problem 5.0

The SAICE Infrastructure Report Card for South Africa (IRC), which was published in 2006, 2011 and 2017 respectively, to ascertain the true status of infrastructure in the country shows that the overall grade in 2017 was a D. This means infrastructure is at risk of failure, with E = Unfit for Purpose. The IRC 2017 proves the enormity of the challenge. Examples: Water supply in major urban areas = C+ (C = Satisfactory for Now), while supply of all other areas is D-. Paved metropolitan roads received a C-, the provincial, metropolitan and municipal gravel roads received an E. This situation hugely impacts inequality, poverty and unemployment, including that of young graduates.

A short explanation of the symbols are: A = World-class; B = Fit for the Future; C = Satisfactory for Now; D = At Risk of Failure, and E = Unfit for Purpose



The Role of Engineer-General in problem-solving

The quest for the establishment of an office of Engineer-General, a Chapter 9 institution is, among other things, to provide independent governance to ensure that implementation of service delivery infrastructure projects, is successful. Therefore, the institution of the Engineer-General is a prerequisite if the South African government is to fulfil its mandate of providing in the basic needs of all its people according to the Constitution. 



The results of setting up the Engineer-General’s office will ensure:

  1. Implementation of the National Development Plan, Bill of Rights (Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa) and justiciable socio-economic rights in terms of sections 26 and 27 of the Constitution.
  2. Implementation accountability; infrastructure is delivered for economic growth and improved wellbeing of the citizens. The public sector (general government, including their related public entities, and parastatals) need to account to citizens regarding infrastructure implementation and service delivery. The Engineer-General will bring to reality societal accountability through monitoring, evaluating and issuing infrastructure implementation instruction notes.
  3. Value for money; tax savings is realised in infrastructure development — described as cost-effective by Section 217 of the Constitution; through technical monitoring and evaluation and corrective action/continual improvement. 
  4. Engineering advisory; Government and Parliament will be advised on engineering challenges and solutions, including suitability/feasibility of projects, and the implementation of best practices that cover the whole infrastructure life cycle — from cradle to grave.
  5. Protection and empowerment of the engineering profession: the engineering profession will be protected from political interference and engineering professionals empowered to stop political interference and improper interference by finance and legal professions, among others. Furthermore, the political appointment of non-technical personnel, or inappropriately qualified personnel, in technical posts will be eradicated, with the prerequisite that Human Resources consult with technical professional engineering practitioners, who WILL have the final say when filling technical posts.
  6. A capable state: engineering re-capacitation in all tiers of government, parastatals, etc., by creating a conducive environment to attract and retain engineering skills in this sector. The Engineer-General will set minimum competency levels in engineering for Technical Services Managers/Infrastructure Heads of Departments /CEOs, and include establishing best procurement options for infrastructure development projects.


In conclusion, the fact is that political survival depends on the engineers, because all election promises are infrastructure-related and can only be delivered by engineers. This further supports the office of the Engineer-General being instituted. This office could ‘’assemble a team to speed up implementation of new projects” and assist with re-professionalising of infrastructure departments across the board, as well as ensuring an adequate legislative framework to empower passionate engineers to implement projects.

The engineers who are requesting the institution of an office of Engineer-General, implore you, the Presidency and Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, to not allow this good plan to just stay a ”plan on paper”, but to implement it for infrastructure development by appropriately qualified engineering practitioners, who will deliver within budget, on time, in an effective and efficient manner. This will impact job creation and service delivery to communities to ensure quality of life for all. 


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