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Dear Mr President, stop the exodus of skills critical to our economy

Chairman of the WCPDF, Deon van Zyl.

By Deon van Zyl, Chairman, Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF)

Dear Mr President
 
The Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF) was born out of a need to lobby government to enable an investment-friendly environment that facilitates fixed-capital investment, helps build the economy and creates jobs.
 
As the WCPDF, our members are fortunate to be active in what now seems to be one of the only functional provinces in the country, where numerous municipalities are largely focused on service delivery. We’d like to think we had a small part to play in that, with the province truly recognizing the value of our industry in recent years.
 
But all is not well.  I pen this letter because – instead of creating an enabling environment – national government, seemingly against the best efforts of those local and provincial authorities like ours, is trying its darndest to kill the construction industry across the country.
 
This reality truly hit home when a built-environment colleague phoned me a week ago to say he is leaving for Ireland. He simply can’t wait anymore for national procurement to come out of its now decades-long, coma-induced sleep.
 
And why should he wait when opportunity not only beckons from abroad, but is being invited through the door by our own government to entice our professionals away?

Ireland is building 33 000 new homes per annum, will be retrofitting 500 000 homes by end 2030, and is recruiting our construction and engineering professionals en masse to achieve this. This will be known to you, Mr President, because as quoted in a recent BusinessTech article entitled “Ireland on a massive recruitment drive for skilled South Africans”, (23 June 2023): “Working with the South African government through the Department of Employment and Labour, several delegations from Irish companies are in the country to recruit South African graduates in the construction and civil engineering sector.”
 
How duplicitous is this? On the one hand, you have another country being openly accommodated by our government to recruit the very best resources in our country ̶  ones which this country paid to train  ̶  while on the other, that same government stagnates on issuing the tenders that would keep those resources gainfully employed at home and in the country. And all this while it pays no more than lip-service to other crises in the industry, like a burgeoning construction mafia – borne ultimately out of the procurement crisis – that the private sector has been futilely left to handle on its own for the past decade already.
 
Throughout the history of mankind, future confidence in any country has vested itself in large-scale government spending towards creating the type of infrastructure that secures investment.
 
From the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt to reconstruction programmes in recent times post both wars and depressions, the building and sustaining of effective infrastructure – whether roads, public facilities or educational institutions  ̶  has been the golden mean for economic stability. Yet, in South Africa, it seems that the provision of infrastructure remains a mirage in the distance that can never be reached.

So, Mr President: have we run out of money?  Or has government simply never been serious about growing our country’s infrastructure capacity for future generations? 

Public Private Partnerships in this country rarely work; the huge ‘feast’ of red tape that accompanies these may feed short-lived political portfolios, compliance-obsessed auditors and the salaries of bureaucrats overwhelmed by a lack of skills (or, even worse, on the take). But the juggernauts of tender costs, stagnations and cancellations carried by the private sector literally leaves us starving. And that also means no food at all on the table of the wage earners, endlessly waiting on the side of the road.

There is a lot of talk of large-scale projects; yet the rules of the game keep on changing – the procurement process of government projects at this point in time are no more than a theoretical ideal and a practical mess. 

Andre de Ruyter, in his book Truth to Power, sketches a scene between National Treasury and the Department of Public Enterprises trying to find solutions to procurement. He quotes Acting Director-General Ismail Momoniat’s exasperated response to his colleagues in Treasury: “You have completely undermined the purpose of the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act]!  What the chief executives of Eskom and Transnet are asking is exactly how the Act was written.  What you’ve done is create something that was never intended.” 

It is not only the PFMA that has become something it was not intended to be the same is happening with the Municipal Finance Management Act. Do you know, Mr President that (for example) major metropolitan municipalities are allowed to have only the same amount of petty cash on hand as the smallest municipality? 
 
Or do you know, Mr President, that the Auditor General only makes findings if government departments actually try to deliver services?  In other words, if they don’t try and simply sit on the capital allocated, no red lights flash? This ‘rule by auditor’ amounts to: “Punish those that try, and reward those that don’t.”

But why am I so angry, Mr President? 

Because the senior professional colleague I mentioned earlier, like so many others leaving the country, is a director of a Level 1 BBBEE company in our industry and one that provides a crucial consultancy service in the production line of property and infrastructure. But for the last 10 years, like so many others in our industry, he’s been treading water, submitting tenders at huge expense, while Waiting for Godot (i.e.: government) to arrive – to deliver on procurement and actually spend its money on fixed-capital investment. 
 
Staying would, in all likelihood, impoverish him entirely. To quote, he has spent years: “… waiting for the South African government to show its belief in the country. I cannot afford to wait any longer”. 
 
The exit stamp in this professional’s passport has been stamped by his own country: by red tape, the stagnation of change in legislation and polices, a belief that the lowest tender price must be the best irrespective of experience and expertise, and the fact that an audit-compliant culture is more important than capital spent.
 
But for how much longer can the powers in Pretoria afford to stand on the sidelines as increasing numbers of qualified and experienced people leave? And in the wake of this, how many more workers in construction left behind will have to face their hungry children, not knowing where their next meal will come from?
 
If delivery and implementation of fixed-capital investment projects do not become front of mind for every politician and bureaucrat in this country, we will continue to hemorrhage our most crucial nation-building skills. This while we watch (somewhat bewildered as we’ve drunk the cool aid) as our sewage systems overflow, our potholes outnumber our road surfaces, mysterious gas leaks cripple a downtown, and energy resources implode … along with our economy.
 
Ultimately, Mr President, it’s the leadership of today that delivers the legacy for tomorrow. How sad if the current leadership has no more to leave behind than the guilt of non-delivery and the regrets of yesterday? 

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.