File picture: Sxc.hu
IT’S hard for a country to progress when its busiest professionals are lawyers and politicians, not engineers. That could be holding all of Africa back.

The realisation hit home at the 80th national annual conference of the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors last week.

A typical Safcec member, and it has more than 400, is a “civil engineering contractor that has a Construction Industry Development Board (cidb) grading of 6 and above and an annual turnover of more than R10 million”. There are those below the threshold, emerging members, graded 5 or below and generating less than R10m.

While they were busy at their sadly low-key conference and annual general meeting in the east of Johannesburg, Parktown was buzzing. The latter has been the scene of the Zondo Commission into State Capture for what seems like forever, and will be for a while.

Engineers were preoccupied with what is holding the economy back and lawyers were talking about who stole state resources. One has no media exposure, while the other is being broadcast, or streamed, live.

An extraordinary statistic about the 60% or so drop in employment in 10 years in the construction industry, says chief executive Webster Mfebe, went by unnoticed; while the dramatics of every witness or what they did at Bosasa or goodness-knows-where never escapes coverage.

Members bemoaned stalled roads and critical infrastructure projects at their meeting in Boksburg. Reasons included the work of what are termed “construction mafia”.

Although sometimes community members stop projects because they feel unfairly excluded from economic action on their doorstep, much-needed infrastructure is commonly derailed by gun-toting gangsters who barge into briefings, willing to kill for the tender.

Why do Africa’s engineers need to be fêted more than lawyers and politicians? An engineer working for six months produces a plan to build a road, bridge or school. A lawyer works to produce an order shifting blame from their client to someone else. This could be taken on review or challenged in a higher court. Once approved, an engineer’s plan creates something that did not exist; enabling the movement of vehicles ferrying people between work and home or ambulances saving lives.

Roads are the blood vessels of any economy. They are the catalysts of intra-Africa trade. Filling stations, restaurants, hotels and other construction projects go up alongside them, creating more livelihoods.

These could be minor, like the by-pass connecting Mashite in Limpopo to the Polokwane-Groblersdal road, or major such as the Maputo Corridor Logistics Initiative joining Mozambique and Botswana, via South Africa, or the Gautrain. Either way, civil engineering projects add value.

There is nothing wrong with lawyers. However, when they are done working, after even six years, they rarely contribute capital formation. Good lawyers are necessary, but probably at a ratio of one litigator to 10 engineers, if Thuma Mina or the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is to materialise.

Unless they help us recover all that stolen money, our commissions of inquiry must give way to our Safcecs to rebuild Africa.

* Victor Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.