Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

When Thobeka Zondi joined the Setsoto municipality as a bright young graduate nine years ago, she quickly discovered her dream of becoming a registered professional engineer was going to have to wait. Just as law graduates need to complete their articles before they are considered fully qualified, engineers must get practical experience under the tutelage of their elders to take on higher responsibilities.

But Zondi found there was no-one available in Setsoto, which serves the residents of Ficksburg and the surrounding small towns, to supervise her path to becoming a professional engineer. Nor was there anyone to act as a sounding board for the problems she encountered on the job.

Her experience is mirrored across SA, where a shrinking pool of senior engineering professionals simply does not have the capacity to train, mentor and guide the growing number of nonprofessional staff entering the public sector.

The latest research on the engineering capacity of municipalities, published earlier this year by Allyson Lawless of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), paints a bleak picture.

Nelson Mandela Bay has a population of about 1.15m people and only one civil engineer. It’s no wonder [it] had the highest number of service delivery strikes between 2013 and 2015
Manglin Pillay

Lawless surveyed all 278 of SA’s municipalities in 2015 and found the average age of their engineering staff was just 38, a sharp drop from the average of 46 recorded 10 years earlier. The most senior civil engineering staff member was 41 or younger in nearly half the municipalities, and in one-sixth, the most experienced engineering person was no older than 34.

Over the same period, the number of professionally registered staff had fallen from 455 to 294, and the pool of nonregistered engineering staff had grown from 1,420 to 2,094.

The public sector is no longer the training ground of choice it was 30 years ago.

“At one stage 70% of professional engineers were in the government service. It’s now about 30%,” says eThekwini chief strategy officer Adrian Peters.

Says Consulting Engineers SA CEO Chris Campbell: “It’s difficult for a young person without sufficient experience to make the right decisions and to prioritise. It’s a soul-destroying environment. A politically orientated municipal manager will override the decisions a junior technical person makes.”

Into this vacuum

“I think we are getting a lot of infrastructure put in that is simply not suitable, and equipment is deteriorating much faster than it should because it is not being maintained. It’s not a pretty sight. We are rapidly destroying a valuable asset by putting the money in the wrong places,” Lawless warns.

The weakening of in-house engineering expertise in municipalities puts infrastructure projects from roads to waste water treatment at risk, and threatens service delivery.

“Nelson Mandela Bay has about 1.15m people and only one civil engineer. It’s no wonder [it] had the highest number of service delivery strikes between 2013 and 2015,” says SAICE CEO Manglin Pillay.

“Historically, engineering would play a dominant role in planning infrastructure projects. Now mayors, councillors and finance have taken over. Local municipalities are employing technicians and technologists rather than engineers. It’s wrong. You need senior people or it’s all too easy for contractors to take the municipality for a ride.”

However, some metros have managed to retain their engineering capacity and have a healthy pipeline of young skills. eThekwini has 45 civil engineers — more than twice the number of civil engineers employed by any other metro bar Cape Town, which has about 25. The average age of eThekwini’s professional civil engineers is 46.5 years, and it is steadily transforming its racial and gender balance, according to figures supplied by Peters: last year 10 of the 38 candidate engineers in its engineering unit were women, compared with just one five years earlier. Just over one-third of the candidate engineers were black.

Zondi, who is now Setsoto’s director of engineering services, turns out to be one of the luckier ones. She eventually got the support she needed from the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority and expects to register as a professional engineer later this year.

She’s determined to help incubate new talent coming into the municipality, but concedes it’s not easy attracting talented individuals to a rural municipality such as Setsoto, which lies 200km from Bloemfontein. “It’s very difficult to get people to work here. You have to have a real passion for service delivery,” she says.

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