IN light of ongoing discussions across the public and private sectors on infrastructure development as the key to South Africa’s economic growth, Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) recently hosted a panel discussion on what needs to happen for this to succeed.
CESA President Sugen Pillay emphasised that for the government’s economic recovery plan to be successful, the role of partnerships cannot be overemphasised.
“I am not just talking about PPPs, but rather a coming together of all social partners. Business, government, labour and community stakeholders should come together to see a better use of capital, skills, and professional capacity. This will ensure we can successfully embark on our recovery plan, together saving lives and livelihoods,” Pillay said.
Chuene Ramphele, Group Executive: Infrastructure Delivery Division for DBSA, agreed, saying, “Government has been proactive in putting economic policies in place, and now we as the role players need to harmonise our resources to see this to reality”.
Gundo Maswime, UCT Lecturer and member of the Centre of Engineering Excellence in Municipal Infrastructure said that while the economy is in the spotlight, money may not necessarily be the limiting factor. “Through various webinars, seminars, symposiums and conferences, the DBSA and government have made an effort to put funding in the spotlight. Now, however, it is capacity that needs some attention,” Maswime said.
Pillay concurred, saying that the pockets of excellence in government need to be broadened and developed with the aid of private sector input. “We as CESA will gladly volunteer our expertise if it means we can unlock the project pipeline. The ‘owners engineer’ concept could also be considered for the public sector, where project oversight is offered separately to project implementation teams.”
Bringing the role of investment into the conversation, Nedbank economist Johannes Khosa said that collaboration is needed if we are to improve investor confidence. “We have enough evidence to say that yes, the infrastructure investment model does work for economic recovery. The activities of 2010 prove this, but we need to reach that level of investor confidence again.”
Khosa added that political and social turbulence, unreliable electricity supply, strict labour policies, and corruption in procurement processes are factors which hinder infrastructure investment.
Maswime raised the importance of community engagement in achieving successful infrastructure development. Citing SANRAL’s historic difficulties, he said countless projects have been derailed due to local community revolt and intervention.
Ramphele, too, said community and social facilitation should become a crucial part of planning and executing projects. “Workshops and effective community participation will help align infrastructure projects and see a greater chance of success,” he said. This echoed Khosa’s sentiment that social unrest scares off investors. Indeed, panellists agreed that community engagement would be beneficial in achieving sustainable and economically beneficial infrastructure development.
Maswime explained that a factor adding to community unrest has been the mixed messages from the National Treasury on the topic of local contractor development on set-aside projects. Where emerging contractors were once given opportunities to work on specific projects, this was taken away and has led to more established contractors from other provinces being given the work.
This has effectively led to the emergence of the so-called “Construction Mafia”. To combat this, Maswime suggested that a Construction Ombudsman or Engineer General could be considered.
“The importance of maintenance for sustainable infrastructure is well-documented,” said Pillay. “Maintenance and asset disposal activities are always presented when a project is proposed, as part of the project lifecycle. However, these aspects are often ignored with greater attention placed on project-execution. Like pre-planning, maintenance is not given sufficient attention.”
Pillay suggested that client education would help improve this so that clients can be made aware of the wider picture and the implications of ignoring maintenance.
Ramphele agreed, saying that too much emphasis was placed on the development of new infrastructure, while maintenance of existing infrastructure also holds vast potential for job creation and economic growth efforts. Improved existing infrastructure would also aid in Khosa’s vision of an improved investment environment.
Maswime said that the problem was that maintenance had become reactive, rather than proactive, as greater attention is given to community complaints of lacking infrastructure.
“We have to understand that there is an engineering process which is running parallel to a political process, and the priorities of these processes don’t often overlap. There are often competing values in what the community wants, and what the government is trying to implement.”
In addition, said Maswime, collusion between private maintenance suppliers means it is increasingly expensive to solve problems with existing infrastructure. “We have world-class engineers at government’s disposal, and they should be trusted to oversee maintenance and use their expertise for a more efficient process,” he said.