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SA’s municipal engineers have lost their collective voice

Deon van Zyl, Chairperson, WCPDF.

By Deon van Zyl, Chairperson of the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF)

As we head towards the Local Authority Elections, the rally cry we hear from politicians across South Africa continues to be the same-old, same-old: “Address unemployment”, “Land and jobs now”, and “We are better than them”.

What we really need to hear is: “We will budget for infrastructure provision and address procurement blockages” or even more direct, “We will only appoint qualified and experienced engineers and allow them to get on to fix the problems”.

Why this last one, expressed so succinctly, you ask? Because our municipal engineers have lost their collective voice – a topic on which I recently addressed the Western Cape Branch of IMESA, calling on that organisation to “Dare to be unreasonable”. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, the progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

Municipal engineers make up a crucial sector within government and they are critical to the development of infrastructure, yet it appears as if their voice has been silenced and undermined. The role of the City Engineer has been replaced by policy units filled with lawyers and accountants where public management qualifications now dictate policy.

Municipal engineers no longer have their own budgets, nor have a voice on services priorities and maintenance, nor are they hands-on in the procurement processes. Reflect, for example, just on the situation the City of Cape Town currently finds itself in with the lack of sewage treatment capacity.

Part of my address to IMESA was to give the assurance that as the WCPDF, we will continue to lobby and to advocate for the acknowledgement and re-empowerment of the municipal engineer as an essential role in local government.

We will also continue to point out the obvious anomalies and absurdities whereby legal consultants and auditors dictate to engineers on what engineering logic should be. Take for example, the many times the City of Cape Town’s engineers have put forward proposals offering some measure of solutions, only to be halted by the City’s infamous ‘brick wall’ compliance measure run within its Corporate Services division. What municipality in the world removes responsibility and accountability for municipal engineering from the municipal engineer and still expects things to work?

This is but one example in what has become the standard operation with all three tiers of government. With few exceptions, municipal engineers no longer control their own budgets, nor do they have a voice on services priorities and maintenance, nor are they hands-on in the procurement process. In fact, how many municipalities in South Africa no longer even employ a single professional engineer? How many technical engineering departments are managed by non-engineers?

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. To paraphrase Premier Alan Winde: “You cannot eat a clean audit.” While we have yet to see the Western Cape Government’s economic war room unblock infrastructure provision and stop interference in municipal engineering, we know the province’s heart (at least) is in the right place as the war room enters round two and continues to gather information towards solutions that will untangle bureaucratic red tape. 

But we do still wonder why 18.1% of the City of Cape Town’s posts in water and sanitation services are currently vacant, along with 12% of posts in its Transport division? This, in the light of the Minister of Cooperative Governance’s recently published Municipal Staff Regulations, in which Section 11 clearly states: “Every municipality must develop the strategy to fill funded vacancies and reduce turnaround times for filling of approved vacant funded posts.”  It must also: “fill all funded vacant posts on the staff establishment within six months of a funded post becoming vacant” and “at all times must have the capacity and capability to perform its functions.”

If these posts are important to basic service delivery, then surely these vacancy rates confirm that the “capacity and capability to perform its functions” does not exist or is not currently a priority for the City’s executive management team.

It is therefore on the municipal engineers on whom we call to begin to be unreasonable: stand up for what you believe in and be willing to take the punches that come with it. Be unreasonable in planning engineering capacities for the future and when negotiating the necessary funds for new services or maintenance of existing services. Be unreasonable in demanding performance and decision making from your supply chain management colleagues – and in fact demand that you be part of the procurement process. And demand unreasonableness from your Executive Directors in standing up for good engineering principles, and to defend your turf when it comes to the Auditor General.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Property Wheel.