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SA Fire: Country urgently needs an Office of the Engineer-General

SAPS officers stands at the scene of a burnt apartment block in Johannesburg on September 1, 2023. At least 74 people, including 12 children, died as a fire ripped through the five-storey building in the early hours on August 31, 2023. Photo: AFP

SAPS officers stands at the scene of a burnt apartment block in Johannesburg on September 1, 2023. At least 74 people, including 12 children, died as a fire ripped through the five-storey building in the early hours on August 31, 2023. Photo: AFP

Published Sep 7, 2023


By Mdu Nzimande and Nhlanhla Maphalala

Systems and design thinking and a move towards a unified state architecture that ensures public trust in state stability and longevity is necessary.

In South Africa, there are glaring gaps in systems and design thinking. The consequences of the paucity of interconnectedness of the state are obvious across the physical, social, economic and virtual value chains.

Many disasters have struck. The most recent being the fire that broke out in the Joburg city centre last week. Seventy-two people died. The most explicit were of an engineering nature and included the 2015 Grayston Drive bridge collapse. Two people were killed and 19 injured. Tongaat Mall collapsed during construction in November 2013. Two people died and 29 were injured.

In rail transport, we are reminded of the various train derailments and collisions. On the roads, the flooding on N3 Highway near Alexandra to Linksfield, Gauteng in November 2016 remains vivid in our memory. In the chemical industries, the Sasol Explosion in Secunda in 2004 rocked industry safety.

The disasters need not happen, and the subject of an engineer-general of South Africa is not new. Consulting Engineers of South Africa has been at the forefront of advocating for the introduction of an engineer-general to regulate, supervise, mitigate and monitor engineering practices on large developments. Engineering League of Progress is joining the noble suggestion and further provides some level of details on the motivation and how it can be implemented in South Africa.

The subject of engineer-general is timely, given that South Africa has established other “generals” who oversee, implement and enforce regulations and practices in their respective disciplines. These include surveyor-general, statistician-general, auditor-general and valuer-general. In this context, we may also place chief justice in this category of supreme office in a specific discipline.

People look on after scaffolding for a bridge under construction collapsed on the M1 highway near a busy off-ramp leading to Sandton, South Africa, on October 14, 2015. Two people were killed and around 20 injured. File photo: Reuters

The common thread among the offices of the generals is that they protect the dignity and practices of the discipline, preserve and enforce rules, and investigate and issue technical reports when transgressions are observed. The powers and functions bestowed upon the offices of the generals ensure that practitioners operate within the set guidelines and remain accountable to an overarching independent body.

The energy crisis in South Africa has given rise to a new phenomenon wherein commentators who have questionable credentials and experience in energy matters, present themselves as the industry experts. Also fiercely contesting the same space of self-proclaimed experts on engineering affairs, are NGOs who hold specific interests in industry developments.

The vacuum in national leadership and oversight of engineering matters is the epicentre of the new phenomenon. As a practical example, the overarching engineering opinions on renewable energy projects have been shaped by investors and groupings representing the interests of investors. The implication is that policy makers are likely to concede to the dominant opinions. which may be biased against the greater good of the country or even against real-life experiences in other parts of the world.

The establishment of the Office of the Engineer-General would solve the problems as the reliable, quantitative and unbiased source of opinion on all engineering matters of national interest.

Reliable Engineering Data In South Africa, engineering data of national, public and professional significance resides with the project stakeholders only – the infrastructure project owner, original equipment manufacturers and engineering consultants.

The state of affairs is responsible for the repeat grave technical errors and deficiencies in large infrastructure projects, wasteful expenditure and loss of technical lessons. Once established, the Office of the Engineer-General will act as the reliable and impeccable source of engineering data for all major projects and further enable design standardisation on similar projects.

During the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework of 2020/21 to 2022/23, South Africa spent R815 billion on infrastructure including energy, water and sanitation, human settlements, transport and logistics, education, health and other economic sectors. Due to its good infrastructure and several other factors, South Africa is recognised as the largest and the most developed economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the Budget speech of February 2023, the consolidated government spending was set at R7.1 trillion for the period FY2023/24 to FY2025/26. All national government economic growth policies are anchored on infrastructure development, among them maritime transport policy, NDP 2030, Mining Charter 2018, Integrated Energy Plan, National Water Resources Strategy and AgroForestry Strategy Framework.

At the epicentre of economic development, infrastructure development and national progress lies the engineering know-how. The depth of engineering skills and technical engineering of infrastructure have a direct upside on business confidence, assurance to investors and quality of life.

While it is commendable for the national government to invest in economic and public infrastructure, it is common cause that there is no single point of accountability when it comes to reliability of engineering skills and technical competence on infrastructure development.

However, the Office of Engineer-General is the missing cornerstone of infrastructure development. There is a need for the government to establish the Office of Engineer-General. We submit that the engineer-general is to be envisioned as the single office of accountability and the voice of engineering wisdom for all engineering matters concerning private, public, social and economic infrastructure.

South Africa has an auditor-general, surveyor-general and statistician-general, whose roles are primarily concerned with record preservation, discipline-specific research, supervision and control of discipline competencies and providing authentic reports for public consumption and policy direction, within their areas of jurisdiction. The common character among the offices is that they produce reliable, authentic data and reports that guide national decision-making and stand as the pillar of support and assurance within each specific discipline.

Mdu Nzimande is a BSc Eng. (UKZN), M Sc Eng. (UKZN) | MBA (Stellenbosch) | Finance (Wits) Expertise: Power Distribution | Renewable Energy and Nhlanhla Maphalala is a B Sc Eng. (UKZN), M Eng. Management (UP), Cert. Strategy (Unisa) Expertise: Manufacturing, Electrical Design & Assets Construction