Municipalities and local government authorities in South Africa are bleeding engineers, leaving them severely handicapped when it comes to critical infrastructure maintenance.
The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) has published its 2022 Infrastructure Report Card, showing the country’s public service faced a debilitating shortage in engineering skills.
“It is rare to find a municipality that is blessed with a full complement of qualified and experienced personnel in its technical organogram,” the report stated.
“The human capacity to monitor, inspect and maintain the current infrastructure, and to plan for renewal and replacement, has not grown at the same high rate as the portfolio of public assets.”
SAICE said that constrained budgets and inattention to skills development had worsened the situation.
The institution warned that the operation and maintenance of infrastructure were complex and required a cadre of skilled technical professionals to avoid compromising the lifespan of assets through neglect.
“Most municipalities are desperately understaffed in these crucial positions or staffed by people who do not have the required training or experience,” SAICE said.
SAICE’s assessment was based on a comparison of the engineering capability of local government authorities between 2005, 2015, and 2020.
It observed “revealing” trends in the number of civil engineering practitioners appointed with varying levels of technical qualifications.
The institution shared the graphs below comparing how race representation and qualifications levels had changed.
SAICE said although the dramatic increase in the number of black and female practitioners since 2005 was heartening, it was concerning that it was accompanied by a displacement of their older and white counterparts, for two reasons.
“Firstly, as can be deduced from the corresponding graphs of qualifications, too many of those who left were engineers, and their depletion has disrupted the profile of skill sets that are required for effective service delivery,” it explained.
“Secondly, their exit leaves the incoming cadre of bright and eager candidate engineers, technologists and technicians without the mentorship essential to develop engineering judgement and wisdom — something that can
only happen through guided practice.”
The problem explained above is one currently being experienced by Eskom, which has embarked on a programme to re-acquire engineering and technical capability amid a serious skills shortage and lack of mentors to train current employees.
SAICE also said there was an under-representation of engineering professionals at the leadership level, including in the boards of SOCs and senior management in all spheres of government.
South Africa’s infrastructure at risk of failure
SAICE’s report card assessed the state of various infrastructure components in the country — including water, sanitation, roads, ports, rail, electricity, and healthcare — and graded segments of these on the following scale:
A — World-class
B — Fit for the future
C — Satisfactory for now
D — At risk of failure
E — Unfit for purpose
Overall, SAICE gave South Africa’s infrastructure an “at risk of failure” D grading.
Out of all components, only the Gautrain system managed a “World-class” A- rating.
The worst-performing segments were sanitation in areas outside of urban locations, provincial and municipal unpaved roads, and Prasa passenger and branch railway lines, all of which received an “unfit for purpose” E rating.
The newly-added Information and communication technology infrastructure component scored a solid “fit for the future” B grading.
SAICE said this was primarily due to the infrastructure being “almost exclusively” owned by the private sector.
“Dependent as they are on this infrastructure for their income stream, the owners have every incentive to strive for it to be functioning at all times,” it explained. “This condition is supported by high maintenance standards and a continual cycle of investment.”
The table below summarises SAICE’s Infrastructure Report 2022 scorecard.
SAICE Infrastructure Report 2022 scorecard
Main infrastructure component Segment Grading
Water Bulk water resources D-
Supply in the major urban areas C+
Supply for all other areas D-
Sanitation For major urban areas C-
All other areas E
Solid waste management Waste collection in the major urban areas C-
Waste collection in other areas D-
Waste disposal in major urban areas C-
Waste disposal in other areas D-
Roads National roads B+
Paved provincial roads D
Paved roads in the major urban areas D
Other municipalities’ paved roads D-
Provincial and municipal unpaved roads E
Airports Acsa-owned facilities B-
Ports Commercial ports B-
Fishing harbours B
Oil and gas pipelines All B
Rail Heavy haul freight lines B-
General freight lines C-
Branch lines E
Prasa passenger lines E
Electricity Eskom generating infrastructure D-
Eskom transmission network B
Local distribution D
Healthcare Hospitals D+
Education Public ordinary schools D
Technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges D+
Information and communication technology All B
Overall grade D