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Johannesburg - The government’s infrastructure roll-out plans, key to President Jacob Zuma’s job creation drive, appear to have hit a snag due to inexperienced engineers, architects and quantity surveyors.
The national Treasury says as a result of a lack of skills, many departments have not appointed personnel in their infrastructure units to implement the infrastructure delivery improvement programme (IDIP).
The government has committed to spending R1 trillion on infrastructure, and the expenditure is expected to rise to R4 trillion if planned projects are included.
Documents seen by The Sunday Independent show that the Public Service and Administration Department is concerned about “serious challenges in recruiting registered professional engineers, architects and quantity surveyors”.
The Treasury notes that applicants for these positions have very limited post-qualification experience and have none in the state’s infrastructure delivery management system.
This comes as Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi has resolved to scrap a statutory body he believes is stifling progress in the infrastructure engineering sector, while the government admits it can’t hire experienced engineers, architects and quantity surveyors. If Nxesi has his way, the operational days of the Council for the Built Environment (CBE) could be numbered.
Nxesi has invited public comment on the draft built environment policy, with a view to repealing the act that resulted in the CBE’s formation by the government in September 2001.
The document inviting comments spells out his intentions clearly: “The CBE’s functions (should) be transferred to the Department of Public Works.”
This would result in the department gaining control of six professional bodies that currently report to the CBE.
The agencies, including the Engineering Council of SA (Ecsa), the SA Council for the Quantity Surveying Profession (SACQSP) and the SA Council for the Architectural Profession (Sacap), would now report directly to the department.
Nxesi said this would “lead to improved synergy between the department and the professional councils”.
The professional bodies’ duties include accrediting university courses and registering industry professionals. They are also custodians of industry code of ethics.
The department thrusts the CBE into the centre of the “paralysis” in the sector, describing it as an unnecessary intermediary “hindering implementation of (government) policy decisions by professional council”. It adds: “The (bodies) are not monitored on a regular basis to ensure the extent to which they are implementing their respective legislative mandates.”
CBE council members, who are nominated from the professional bodies, are also to blame for its “paralysis”, according to Nxesi.
He accuses them of acting “contrary” to the requirement that they serve in the “best interests of the CBE and perform their fiduciary duties accordingly”.
The consequences of the status quo in infrastructure engineering include the sector’s apparent slow pace of transformation.
“After (20) years of democracy, the number of previously disadvantaged individuals registered as professionals across the bodies is dismally low – averaging under 25 percent,” Nxesi said.
“There are limited opportunities for graduates to get practical training, resulting in the lapse in time before graduates enter the labour market,” he added.
Nana Mhlongo, the CBE’s acting chief executive, would not comment on the reasons given by the department for its move.
“The CBE is aware of the process under way as championed by the department, and is open to consideration for proposals that would enhance the functioning of the organisation,” she said.
But the professional bodies were scathing of the CBE, describing it as a useless agency.
“The CBE is largely dysfunctional with only two (people) on their 32 staff members having any construction background or understanding of the industry that they are supposed to be managing, and filled with senior personnel in acting positions that cannot take any decisions,” said SACQSP registrar Steven Lyons. “The reality is that the six professional councils are certainly co-operating as required wherever possible.”
Allyson Lawless, industry expert and Ecsa’s council member, welcomed the fact that “only the CBE is being dissolved, not the professional councils”. “I think (the department’s move) is positive in that it will allow the councils to work more closely with the Public Works Department rather than their needs and concerns being channelled through an intermediate body.”
Thokozani Majozi, a professor at Wits University’s School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, said the CBE was a “lion without teeth, in my opinion”.
He urged the department to “maintain the autonomy of the professional bodies”.
But he agrees with moves to have them directly regulated by the government. “There must be control because there are issues of history here. We need to deal with transformation,” he said.
According to the national Treasury, experience from implementing IDIP shows that one of the biggest obstacles to the successful implementation of infrastructure projects is weak planning, which would be addressed by having experienced professionals in departments.
Through IDIP, the T^reasury supports the Basic Education Department to improve infrastructure delivery such as replacing mud schools, mainly in the Eastern Cape, among others.
IDIP hasn’t been a complete failure as Treasury says it helped improve average spending, from about 85 percent in 2006 to 95 percent in 2012 – a period during which provincial infrastructure budgets more than doubled.
Concerns over IDIP come in the same week that the multi-level government initiative at the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre revealed that Operation Clean Audit 2014 was an ill-conceived intervention that, from the outset, had little chance of success.
In a report titled “Operation Clean Audit 2014: Why It Failed and What Can Be Learned”, researchers Derek Powell, Michael O’Donovan, Zemelak Ayele and Tinashe Chigwata say there was no correlation between targets set for clean audits by this year and the actual condition of municipalities and provincial departments.
The government set an ambitious target of all 278 municipalities and provincial government departments achieving clean audits.
The Sunday Independent reported in February that the national Treasury admitted the target would not be met.
And the researchers say there was never a factual basis for believing targets would be met by municipalities.
Targets were never adjusted to the actual results, as these became apparent and that there was always a gap between targets and reality, according to their report.