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Engineering the Future – CESA’s annual Infrastructure Indaba unpacks professionalisation, transformation in SA’s built environment

Consulting Engineers South Africa’s (CESA) annual Infrastructure Indaba, currently underway in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, unpacked the role that engineers continue to play in developing South Africa’s infrastructure, which provides the foundation for sustainable development enabling economic growth for future generations to come.

The theme for this year’s Indaba, which is being held from the 9 -10th March, is ’Engineering the Future Now’. Itprovides a platform for stakeholders from all sectors of the built environment to come together and share knowledge and best practice aimed at ensuring the provision of value-for-money infrastructure for economic development and prosperity.

The Infrastructure Indaba was officially opened by Chris Campbell, CEO of CESA. Olu Soluade, CESA President, during the first session, “Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan – Infrastructure Delivery and Maintenance of Public Assets”, called for government’s enhanced focus on ‘professionalizing the state’ to enable the right people with the requisite skills, experience and competencies being placed in key positions.

“This will ensure that money is spent in a cost-effective manner for both the social and economic benefit of the people of our country. As an industry organization, our mandate is to lobby for positive change within the regulatory environment to enable our members better serve society,” he added.

In the focused discussion on “Building a capable state – Engineering Skills – Professionalisation of engineering services in the public and private sector,” Professor Mohamed Mostafa, an academic leader (Agri/Civil Eng & LS/CS) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, emphasized that to enable sustainable development, our country needed to drive centres of excellence across various sectors. The lack of which would continue to impact service delivery in the country to those who needed it the most: “Poor infrastructure is a serious challenge to the development of communities and economic progress. It changes the lives of communities drastically and contributes to increased poverty.”

In driving sustainability and excellence in this country, he believed there was an urgent need to eradicate corruption, lack of accountability and mismanagement; as well as to enhance the capability and competency of professionals in the public sector, with particular reference to the inclusion of engineers in this space.

“The interference of politics to critical decision making related to the built environment must change as it is not based on engineering.  Tenders are run by non-technical individuals, i.e., not engineers, and there is no consideration for quality, functionality, qualifications and technical merits. To address the risk of infrastructure collapsing, we need qualified, competent and professionally registered engineers in important positions across the public space.”

Steven Kaplan, 2023 President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), highlighted key challenges in the country’s infrastructure space from the recently published 2022 Infrastructure Report Card. He also highlighted the need for appropriately qualified and professionally registered technical people back into the system to plan, identify, procure and manage large-spend engineering projects to unlock the economy. 

Campbell added that CESA aims to continue to collaborate with various industry stakeholders that are participating in the Infrastructure Indaba, in order to gain greater public sector confidence and trust. “This will ensure that our intentions are simply that of partnering to optimize the outcomes of infrastructure delivery for the benefit of our people and the economy.”

The Economics of Transformation

The second session focused on transformation was facilitated by Ntembeko Zifuku, MD at HN Consulting Engineers. Andre van der Walt, General Manager at SMEC Power and Energy function in Africa, presented in the second session focused transformation. He provided insights into the transformation journey of SMEC, as well as provided examples of the growth of transformation. “We need large consulting engineering firms and large contractors to be local and to have the necessary capacity to execute large projects – and transformation must be a part of that journey and the move to the future.”

Mahendren Manicum, MD at Naidu Consulting, added: “True economic transformation will only be achieved by embracing legislation, and by how well organisations can transform the lives of the less marginalized in a way that matters – that is true economic transformation.”

Ismail Essa, Head of Transformation at SANRAL, asked a critical question during his presentation: “Is the Construction Charter easy to manipulate to achieve good BEE levels while the reality is not so?”  He called on the industry to reflect on their efforts and actions to date regarding transformation. “We believe that more can be done, especially if the efforts can be combined rather than individually, perhaps co-ordinated by CESA and others. The industry is under capacitated, and the upturn of work is the wave to ride in order to grow the industry to reflect the demographics of the country as close as is possible.”

Meanwhile, the last session at the Infrastructure Indaba, “Infrastructure Development and Energy Infrastructure Services”, was facilitated by Dr. Vishal Haripersad, CESA Board member and Regional Manager of Knight Piésold Africa.

Nicky Weimar, Chief Economist at Nedbank, explained that load shedding continues to impact the growth of South Africa’s economy, with the South African Reserve Bank estimating that load shedding shaved 2% of the country’s GDP in 2022. The energy crisis, she added, resulted in the current dwindling of gross fixed capital formation, which remains critical for the creation of employment opportunities. “Addressing the country’s energy issues will ensure a decent reserve ratio and allow for growth of the country’s economy.”

Sibusiso Ntshalintshali, Head of Energy Transition at the eThekwini Municipality, expressed that the municipality welcomed the State of Disaster on Electricity Crises and regulations that have been developed to accelerate procurement in new capacity in line with the Presidential Energy Action Plan. The municipality aims to reduce reliance on Eskom by 20% 2025 (short-term target), increase local generation to 40% (medium term) and achieve energy independence by 2050 by embracing an integrated energy approach in the municipality to enable a shift from a high-carbon economy to a low carbon economy.

Ntshalintshali was joined by William Joughin, SAIMM President-elect and chairman of SRK Consulting, as well as Prince Moyo, General Manager: Transmission Asset Management at Eskom, who unpacked the National Energy Crisis Committee workstream initiatives and unpacked the utility’s 10-year historical investments in transmission and key priorities.