Chilling decline leaves SA scoring ‘F’ on its report card

November 19, 2022 0 By Cypher9ja

South Africa is in the opening convulsions of an economic double whammy. At the moment, that collapse of critical infrastructure – electricity, water, sewage, roads and railways – appears to be approaching a tipping point, the skills and expertise required to salvage the situation have become critically scarce.

The country is in the throes of a brain drain that rivals and may even exceed the exodus that accompanied the political upheavals of the 1960s and mid-1980s.

The 2022 Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) of the SA Institute of Civil Engineers (Saice) is a chilling warning that the collapse of public infrastructure has reached the stage that unless addressed immediately, we face becoming a failed state.

About half of South Africa’s public infrastructure has collapsed or is close to doing so. However, because the country’s engineering capacity has been eroded at a shocking rate over the past decade, the expertise required to rescue the situation is simply no longer available.

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Engineers, with their innate belief that what can be conceived can be built, are innate optimists. If anything, Saice is understating the gravity of the situation. The averaging effect of the IRC’s scoring method puts something of a gloss on the picture that hides potentially paralysing flaws.

It is easy to forget that infrastructural systems are interrelated and that the failure of a critical component in one can trigger a cascade of failures elsewhere.

For example, failures in a few key components of Eskom’s generating infrastructure over the past year have left South Africa, warn experts, dangerously close to a total national blackout that would be economically crippling and could last for weeks.

And Eskom’s repeated load shedding has also, despite Gauteng dams being at record capacity, meant that Johannesburg has been unable to pump sufficient water to replenish urban reservoirs. This is the fifth IRC since 2006 and delivers the lowest overall grade yet, a D.

While this is a matter of “great concern”, the Saice writes rather improbably that “broadly speaking, it is evident that, with the exception of energy generation, economic infrastructure remains in a satisfactory condition”. The IRC then turns to human resources needed to fix these incipient disasters.

While it cheers the heartening and “real South African success story” of the “dramatic increase” in the number of black and female technicians and technologists, this was accompanied by the “displacement” of their older and white engineer counterparts.

This has resulted in a “debilitating shortage in engineering skills” and a critical lack of mentorship. Saice’s determinedly upbeat tone would be considerably muted if the IRC had been bold enough to address the most critical factor influencing a future infrastructural collapse: the ANC government.

It is on the willingness of the government to relax race quotas in employment, cease the deployment of party cadres and curb tender corruption, that everything else depends.

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This week, in his weekly missive to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote that “there should be no mistake or misunderstanding”, the government remained “wholly committed” to transformation and empowerment. B-BBEE is “not under threat and is not being reconsidered”.

Preferential procurement, “one of the most transformative pieces of legislation to come out of democratic South Africa”, will remain in place. How would Saice rate such a response on its report card, one wonders? Although its report card doesn’t have an F (for failed, f***ed up beyond retrieval), that’s the symbol that springs immediately to mind.