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Engineers in the public sector are tarred with the ‘corrupt, incompetent and deployed’ brush

This past weekend, a friend and seasoned public sector engineer recounted an amusing and yet revealing account of a discussion he had with a nurse in a urology clinic. He had come out of the operating theatre after having had a vasectomy and the nurse asked him what he does for a living. On finding out he was a civil engineer, she said her late husband had been an engineer and that he must be turning in his grave to hear that Cuban engineers are being brought to South Africa to solve our problems. My friend said he held a diametrically opposed view to the nurse on the Cuban matter, but he was in a vulnerable position, with the nurse literally holding his “surname” in her hands. This illustrates how the opinions we express are not always the opinions we hold. 

The views we express are weighed against our vulnerabilities and the authority of those who are holding our lives in their hands.

Many built-environment professional bodies expressed their disapproval of the water and sanitation minister’s decision to employ 24 Cuban engineers to help fix the water and sanitation infrastructure problems in the Vaal area. There are at least eight municipalities in three provinces that pollute the Vaal River system and the decision by the Human Rights Commission to place the responsibility on the department of water and sanitation is sensible.

Some professional bodies used the situation to place many other issues on the agenda as they berated the government on matters of poor public infrastructure delivery. According to the media, public infrastructure delivery problems are caused by corruption, incompetence and cadre deployment. This narrative has become so embedded that engineers avoid the stigma of working in the public service. 

Any activity the government embarks on is scrutinised through a lens of corruption, incompetence and cadre deployment. Hence the overtones of corruption in some of the formal letters to Sisulu and some commentators claim the minister has a plan on how she will follow the money in Cuba.

While working as a consulting engineer in the private sector, I noticed a pervasive mindset on the design floor that permeated daily conversations — there was a constant reference to how inept and unethical the government is. 

As consulting engineers navigating Microstation V8, Prokon, WaterMate, AutoCadd and other ornate design software packages daily, we felt very intelligent. After all, the word engineer is derived from the Latin word ingenium, which means cleverness. I then joined the public sector feeling clever and suddenly realised that I have become part of the “corrupt, incompetent and deployed” in the eyes of those to whom I have become “the client”.

 I was surprised when I was appointed as an executive without any membership or association with those that deploy cadres. I felt I had come in through the back door and still belonged to the clever club in the private sector. The subtle signs like over-explaining basic engineering principles and harping about ethics indirectly made me realise that I have, by virtue of joining the public sector, become corrupt, incompetent and deployed. Imposter syndrome kicked in when I needed to communicate a decision that was eccentric to rescue construction projects from scenarios that were not anticipated by legislation. I could see them searching for corruption, incompetence and acting as a deployee in the decisions I make. 

This dynamic is at the core of the clash between the consulting engineering fraternity and the state. It is a case of a lack of mutual trust and respect. The government wants the services but deeply resents the attitude. 

During the years of sanctions, the engineering fraternity never protested against the recruitment of 1 000 French engineers to work in Koeberg or the 1 000 British and Italian engineers and technicians employed to set up the Impala manufacture line in the 1960s. Nor about the 500 engineers and technicians sent from the United Kingdom, Belgium and Denmark for the South African Post Office in 1982. Deployments done between 1960 and 1994 were done at a high cost and to avoid training engineers of other races, which JP de Lange had warned would result in the country having the same number of black engineers as white engineers within 20 years of this being approved.

Nor were there protests in 2014 against engineering surveyors from France and the United States to change our coordinate system and redefine the International Terrestrial Reference Frame. German technical engineers have been deployed a few times to help Eskom since 2000 and this happened very cordially. 

What should concern us about the Cuban deployment is that it is administratively quicker to bring engineers from Cuba (a ministerial prerogative) than to use the services of local private sector engineers (an administrative prerogative). We must identify the sources of delays and inefficiencies and be willing to confront them even if it means changing policies and standard operating procedures. 

Our legislative framework governing infrastructure delivery is so complex and laborious. The Human Rights Commission gave the department an ultimatum six months ago and officials are still ticking boxes for the auditor general. The minister is not allowed to influence the procurement process but must solve the issue expeditiously enough to satisfy a host of stakeholders affected by the pollution and the Human Rights Commission. The last time the minister cracked the whip, she was in the news for interfering and was accused of being a corrupt and incompetent deployee. 

The solution is in paying attention to the science of implementation. This is the science that concerns itself with what happens between policy adoption and service delivery. We have great policies and brilliant engineers but we lack depth in the science of implementation. We misconstrue our failures as corruption, incompetence and cadre deployment while we know very well that this is the first government to carry the responsibility of having to serve South Africans equitably.


  • Gundo Maswime is a lecturer in the department of civil engineering at the University of Cape Town. His research interests are in public infrastructure. He writes in his personal capacity.