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2024 could be ‘turning point’ for infrastructure sector

An image of Cesa CEO Chris Campbell

CHRIS CAMPBELL The private sector is an integral part of this country and this is why South Africa needs to break down barriers and build relationships

16th February 2024

By: Lumkile Nkomfe

Creamer Media Reporter


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Amid an evolving political landscape and the imminent challenges of an upcoming national election, Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa) underscores the critical need to expedite infrastructure development and for continuity in South Africa, emphasizing the importance of proactive planning and policy cohesion.

“Following the various pronouncements made by public-sector entities regarding infrastructure, planning and spend, there is an urgent need to fast-track efforts to develop infrastructure in the country ahead of the national elections,” says Cesa CEO Chris Campbell.

In the current national reality, the funds available in the budget for infrastructure allocation are increasingly limited: “We find ourselves in an era where our financial strategies have resulted in self-imposed challenges. For example, if . . . State-owned rail company Transnet had operated more efficiently, the mining industry could have seized the recent windfall in the commodities market. This situation underscores the critical need for improved financial management and strategic decision-making in our infrastructure development."

This, among other factors, is why Cesa is advocating for the increased involvement – particularly regarding investment in infrastructure – of the private sector, and has called for the strengthening of the partnerships between the public and private sectors.

In the lead-up to this year’s Cesa Infrastructure Indaba, which will be held from March 19 to 20 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Campbell says the association is looking forward to hosting speakers from the private and public sectors.

“The private sector is an integral part of this country and this is why we need to break down barriers and build relationships so that we all understand that the challenge of rebuilding our infrastructure is one that a collective can address. Government actors often think that they have to be paternalistic about it; however, it’s not their problem alone – we are here to work together,” he elaborates.

However, there are several challenges that must be overcome to unlock infrastructure development, he says. These challenges include the construction mafia; the lack of maintenance of existing infrastructure, which, if improved, would reduce the demand for new works or knowing what demand to cater for; climate change; and developing and retaining skills in the country.

Campbell laments the mafia-style protectionism of the construction industry, which some public-sector entities are apparently budgeting for in their projects, rather than pushing back against it.

He also advocates for expeditious law enforcement and consequence management to mitigate the stalling of planned infrastructure projects.

Further, Cesa urges local municipalities to gear up for population growth by ensuring that, for example, water supply systems are not overburdened and that the demand for development of schools, hospitals, road networks and housing is sufficiently met.

Upgrading and adding capacity to infrastructure can take several years, he says, advising that plans to address the impending strain on, for example, water infrastructure, should be implemented post-haste.

The lack of maintenance by the public sector is an evident public infrastructure challenge, adds Campbell.

Meanwhile, he supports the professionalising of the public sector over the current cadre deployment as a means of mitigating the loss of engineering talent at all levels in the planning and service delivery portfolios of local, provincial and national government.

The public sector needs inspirational leaders who can mentor the young cohort of engineers in the technical environment, as “it is commonplace for these graduate engineers to get frustrated by unqualified managers”.

Financial incentives in the public sector are uncompetitive and insufficient to sustainably retain top engineering talent, he highlights.

Cesa cautions against the undervaluing of technical expertise in the infrastructure sector.

“Technical expertise is not a commodity. It has been treated like a commodity in far too many instances. For example, in the tendering process, what the technical expert is worth is undervalued. All too often, in the bidding process, companies are almost compelled to offer their services at discounted fee scales according to the levels of expertise that would be required and the quality of the output is compromised at the onset,” argues Campbell.

He emphasises Cesa’s role in training, and in facilitating mentorship opportunities for engineering graduates, such as the association’s mentorship role and support for the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency’s initiatives and other public-sector entities that want to address these national challenges.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor



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