Italian water expertise imported to improve SA’s water resources management

Issued by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, with questions by this publication

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) regards this action by the government as a regrettable development that fosters neither the management of the water resources in South Africa, nor the transformation agenda of government and our people.

Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, along with Italy’s deputy minister of the environment, land and sea, have signed a water co-operation agreement “to work on joint projects that will enhance capacity building, technology transfer, and technical assistance in the fields of water quality enhancement, water resource management, water service management, and rural sanitation technology.” (Business Live, 19 October 2016.)

2013 Manglin small newWebManglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, is outspoken, “I am not sure what’s wrong with local engineering capacity that the minister goes to Italy to seek assistance. As in the case of the Cuban engineers over the years, it illustrates once again the DWS’s disregard for local industry body concerns. It brings to the fore the apathy and general disregard for the opinions of industry institutions, highly acknowledged key decision-makers, and water engineering specialists. SAICE implores the department to review these appointments before they arrive and to invite relevant institutions and local water experts to fashion alternatives that are appropriate to the challenges at hand.

“It must be clarified that the dispute relating to consultation with the local institutions pertains to sourcing appropriate local solutions, in collaboration with the institutions, in order to relieve technical capacity challenges.”

Pillay continues, “The engineering institutions have direct access to and influence on its members, some of whom have indicated willingness to work in the public sector. SAICE, for example, conducted a survey among 380 of its members, 40% of whom indicated their willingness to work in the public sector. In addition, Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) has publicly confirmed that there is currently a 40% under-utilisation of local consulting engineering capacity in South Africa.”

Pillay argues, “Hundreds of graduate technicians and technologists are struggling to find experiential training or sustainable work — this in a country with unemployment in excess of 25%. On top of this, a large number of civil engineering practitioners have been retrenched over a period of a year and a half.”

According to the results of the SAICE survey, local engineering professionals are willing to work in the public sector on condition that:

  • Infrastructure departments should not be politicised;
  • Technocrats should have decision-making power;
  • The lack of systems, processes and structures for efficient administration should be addressed;
  • Development and career paths should be clear; and
  • Unwarranted interference by Human Resources and Finance departments in the work of infrastructure engineering professionals should be stopped.

“Apart from the above,” Pillay contends, “the initiative does not answer to the requirements of the National Development Plan (NDP), which is the medium- and long-term vision document for South Africa. The NDP calls for urgent re-professionalising of the public sector. The DWS now spends this money on Italian practitioners at the expense of developing young engineers and retaining local engineers.”

The real solution

Pillay points out, “Skills shortages and capacity issues within the department can be addressed through focused efforts to train and develop young engineers, and utilising local, professionally registered engineers, giving them the same monetary and other benefits as the imported civil engineers, civil technologists, and civil technicians. It is only through appropriate mentorship and supervision that young graduate engineers will be able to register as professionals with ECSA to become experts in their fields eventually.  

“Therefore, the argument that the Italian initiative is an effort to train and develop these young engineers, technicians and technologists within the public sector is highly questionable, especially in view of the fact that they will be employed for only a relatively short time. The involvement of women and youth in projects is already being done, as is evident in the SAICE-SAFCEC Awards given for excellence in community based civil engineering projects, which are changing the lives of people as we speak.”

“It illustrates once again the DWS’s disregard for local industry body concerns.”

SAICE, on behalf of the engineering institutions in the country, implores the DWS to rather invest in alternatives that actually address the real problems of skills shortages in the department and country. Pillay states that government should employ local, registered, and experienced senior engineers to avoid another Eskom and Rand Water situation. Pillay concludes, “South Africa must use local, available expertise!”

Questions by this publication

Plumbing Africa asked a few leading industry people for their views on this situation.

It is of concern to us that the DWS avoids answering questions and on the rare occasion that they do, the answers are ambiguous and indirect. For example, when asked about registering Cuban and now Italian engineers with ECSA, they responded by saying that the engineers fit their DWS requirements. Who made the DWS the selector of engineers, irrespective of discipline? We were extremely disappointed at the Engineering Council of South Africa’s (ECSA) response below, avoiding the matter. When one considers they are responsible to the engineers of this country and not government departments, questions need to be asked.

As a leading publication serving the industry, we support the official bodies when they question government departments and their disregard for the laws of the country.

Here are the replies from our selected participants.

Visiting adjunct professor at the Wits University School of Governance and a former commissioner of the National Planning Commission and director general of Water Affairs

SAICE is correctly concerned about ensuring that South Africa makes the best possible use of its available technical skills, both to do the engineering work so desperately required in many areas (including water and sanitation), and to train a new generation of practitioners to work to the same high standards.

However, that does not mean that South Africa should turn its back on external expertise. Just as an example, South Africa’s globally praised water legislation was developed with extensive input from experts ranging from China and Australia to the US and Europe. It was all the better for that.

So what matters is not that we have co-operation arrangements with other countries, but how do we use them. So we need to be careful that co-operation is not simply a means for partners to sell their policies, products, and services for their own benefit rather than for ours.

There is plenty of evidence, starting in Europe, that rich countries aim to develop their markets by giving aid and assistance. It is a formally stated goal for many European governments. So South Africans must understand that a constructive professional relationship is not the same as a nice dinner with a salesperson. Too often, I fear that we don’t know the difference.


Helgard Muller (Pr Eng, BSc, BEng, MEng, FSAICE, SFWISA)
Specialist consultant: water policy, regulations and institutions

The CEO of SAICE raised very valid concerns as reflected in the Business Live interview. One major example is water resources. South Africa has a very erratic rainfall, with frequent droughts. The climate in Europe and Cuba is totally different. The DWAF/DWA/DWS had extensive technical expertise to plan and cope with such droughts. The in-house hydrologists and engineers in DWAF were world leaders in their respective fields and were supported by teams in the private sector. Substantial capacity was lost in government, but it is foolhardy not to use the expertise that does exist in the private sector in the country. 


Christopher (Chris) Campbell (Pr Eng)
CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa

Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) understands the realm of counter trade agreements and the positives that they may bring to our country. The agreement between South Africa and Italy may very well have elements of this; however, it does not bode well for the transformation and capacitation of our own environment when we do this to the detriment of locally available engineering skills and expert practitioners. 

We are fully aware of the diminishing capacity at the DWS. To this end, CESA has over the past 12 months repeatedly attempted to secure a meeting with the ministry to confirm our willingness to partner with the ministry in meeting this challenge. We did eventually have the opportunity to meet with a senior official from the department late last year, and we hope to be able to assist them in building the new generation of engineers, technologists, and technicians that they will need in the future. This intervention, however, only addresses the ‘soft skills’ of their technical employees, but we do believe that there is a need for them to re-capacitate in the area where more substantial depth of technical expertise is required for future planning and management.  

The consulting engineering industry has the capability and the capacity to assist and support the department in rebuilding this internal technical capacity. It is indeed tragic that we should be importing costly experts who, I would argue, are not familiar with our local conditions and would find themselves having to refer to local experts anyway. The offer from the industry still stands and we are hopeful that the minister will take the time to talk to the industry so that we can jointly develop a win-win strategy for sustainably addressing these capacity challenges.


Vollie Brink (Pr Eng, MSAICE, MPMISA, MFEASA)
Independent consultant and regular contributor to Plumbing Africa

Manglin Pillay has hit the nail on the head and his comments can be substantiated.

I am busy mentoring and training a number of BEE engineers and technologists to build capacity, but there are still ‘old’, highly experienced engineers around. If we give away the prime job opportunities by bringing in engineers from another non-South African country, then we are actually ‘killing’ our own capacity and future.

Every South African engineer is capable of creating large numbers of job opportunities from projects down the line.

We have the local experience, we have local engineering expertise and knowledge, and we have local standards — why is it ignored and not used? Why must we create jobs for people from Italy and not for our own engineers?

We can do it ourselves. We have excellent universities and colleges to educate and train our own engineers; if we ‘give away’ our jobs then where will they work? In Italy?

The problem is that ‘we’ appoint ‘non-engineers’ in management positions.


Sandisa Maqubela
Corporate spokesperson and manager for stakeholder relations and marketing at the Engineering Council of South Africa

In response to your request for comment, ECSA has taken a decision not to address the department through a public forum. 

If there are issues to be addressed (which seems to be the case), it will be courteous for us to contact them directly and deliberate further to solicit some solutions on the issue of available engineering skills versus the demands of the developing South African economy.

I trust that you will find the above in order!



Needless to say, we did not “find the above in order”.

Appreciating the diplomatic attempt to avoid the real issue, we replied asking for confirmation that “all engineers working in South Africa must be registered with ECSA”. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and a further question as to how ECSA handled the Cuban engineers that were imported into South Africa.

No response was received to this communication at the time of going to print — sad but true!

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