South Africa

Skills crisis caused South Africa’s infrastructure collapse

Wits Professor William Gumede said a shortage of critical skills in South Africa prevents the country from properly maintaining its existing infrastructure and building new infrastructure.

Gumede told eNCA that immediate intervention is “absolutely critical” to prevent an infrastructure collapse in South Africa. 

He explained that the country has seen a severe lack of maintenance of Apartheid-era infrastructure over the past few years, and this neglect is now starting to take its toll.

In addition, the country has not built enough new infrastructure, particularly critical infrastructure like rails and roads.

These issues largely come down to inadequate governance at the state-owned enterprises that manage South Africa’s infrastructure.

“When we build new infrastructure under the governance of corruption where incompetent people build new infrastructure or when kickbacks are received, companies without capacity build new infrastructure,” he explained. 

“And now, that new infrastructure built by companies without capacity is also falling apart.” 

“So old infrastructure that we didn’t maintain is collapsing. The new infrastructure we built corruptly or without competence is also breaking down.”

Gumede explained that this ties into the country’s skills shortage, as South Africa no longer has the critical skills to address these problems.

South Africans with the technical skills to fix and build new infrastructure have been pushed out of corrupt and mismanaged institutions, “particularly at a municipal level but also at a state-owned entity level”, he said. 

“At the state-owned infrastructure companies, skills wither out. Your engineers, your project planners, project managers, and so on.”

“Now we have a skill shortage, and those who are there often don’t have the technical skills, so that becomes an extra burden on infrastructure.” 

“Even if the states want to build new infrastructure or maintain some of the existing infrastructure, they don’t have the skill set or the skills basis to do that.”

Professor William Gumede
Professor William Gumede

Gumede’s views are backed by data from the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE).

SAICE President Steven Kaplan recently spoke about the skills destruction in South African cities and towns.

He said the most important thing to improve local service delivery and infrastructure is ensuring municipalities have the right people and skills.

Local government has lost many qualified and experienced professionals over the last fifteen years.

Research by former SAICE president Dr Allyson Lawless showed that junior technicians had replaced senior engineers working in local government.

Her research showed that there had been a migration of skills, especially professional engineers, towards the private sector and global markets.

There has been a displacement of older, experienced engineers in municipalities between the ages of 45 and 60.

“In 2005, there was a balance between the senior engineers, technologists, and technicians at local government,” Kaplan said.

The situation changed dramatically over the last decade, with virtually no senior engineers left at municipalities.

The senior engineers were replaced by an abundance of new graduate technicians and technologists with no experience. Very few new engineers were employed.

“It means the young incoming graduates don’t have anyone in the workplace to provide structured mentorship programmes,” Kaplan said.

These programmes are essential for skills development and service delivery and guide new graduates to become productive professionals.

He said many municipalities don’t have a single registered professional engineer to guide the young graduates.


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