Country at a Crossroads – a Response to Mid-term Budget Speech

Country at a Crossroads – a Response to Mid-term Budget Speech

On Wednesday 24 October 2018, South Africa’s brand-new Finance Minister, the honourable Mr Tito Titus Mboweni, delivered his first Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, MTBPS Speech, to the country.

South Africa’s engineering and the construction world, in particular, welcomed government’s focus on infrastructure development in support of economic recovery and job creation. 

“Over the next three years, public infrastructure expenditure is estimated to be R855.2 billion, of which state-owned companies alone account for R370.2 billion,” said the minister.  Indeed, good news for an industry that has been struggling with flat growth for several years now.

However, beyond the numbers, the minister also had another very important message to convey to the country and specifically to the private sector. He indicated that the MTBPS is designed to outline how we spend resources for the benefit of all South Africans. 

“However, it is more than a set of numbers, reams of data, charts, graphs or words. Our performance should be measured by whether people are gainfully employed, whether our children are learning in decent schools and whether we have health care facilities that are up to standard.” 

This speech was delivered in the spirit of a strong conviction that South Africa can be renewed. The minister used terms like “an opportunity to demolish the walls that exist between the private and public sectors,”  and “we have successfully partnered with the private sector in the past.”

The engineering profession in South Africa should rally to this invitation as we possess the much-needed technical skills that are required to accelerate infrastructure development across our country. 

However, to make a more meaningful contribution, we need to ensure that our voices are at the table. We need to question: why the influence of engineers in our country, which is in desperate need of infrastructure development, has diminished over the years? Why have we not managed to take our rightful place in shaping policy and the reconstruction of our country, South Africa? 

We are very good at designing world-class infrastructure once we are appointed on a project. However, our profession has been commoditised to a point where undercutting of professional services has become the norm.

We need to ask ourselves if determining the size of the pipe or calculating the volume of traffic flow is good enough to get us to the table. In his address at the BRICS summit on July 26, 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to the World Economic Forum report that identified the three most important skills for an employee by 2020 will be “complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.” 

How can we, as the engineering profession, embrace these skills to place us at the forefront of shaping policy and influencing decision makers? 

What our country needs are new solutions to address the complex problems that confront us. We need truly innovative Afrikan solutions to rapid urbanisation, failing infrastructure, struggling public health, outdated educational system with outdated and derelict infrastructure, inequality, poverty and unemployment, to name a few. 

These are wicked problems that require systemic thinking across multiple disciplines. And maybe our strong silo-based technical thinking is failing us.

In a paper entitled “Advancing the Afrikan lion’s narrative,” Prof Mugendi K. M’Rithaa, President of the World Design Organisation, argues strongly that “engineers, architects, planners, designers and allied professionals should embrace transdisciplinary and participatory ethnographic tools in their quest for more creative and innovative solutions as they aspire to contribute towards the development projects on the continent.”  

He references the “transformative potential of design thinking and allied ethnographic tools in facilitating a more nuanced, inclusive and targeted human-centric approach” in making a positive contribution to the realisation of diverse national development plans.

As engineers, we fall in love with our solutions and sometimes become so excited with them that we forget about the problem. 

Maybe we need to start falling in love with the problem? To do this, we need to have a deep understanding of the end user. We need to embrace and practice deep empathy. We need to embrace storytelling for the sake of just listening, not for the sake of having to respond. 

Through storytelling, we can transport ourselves into other people’s worlds. This will allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of the end user before we draw that first line on the page of a new design. By doing this, we start designing for the people and not some government client.

As engineers, we need to be champions of the National Development Plan, this visionary document of a future South Africa that states: “We all have actively set out to change our lives in ways which also benefit the broader.” This visionary document promotes active citizenry and calls on us to display the preamble of our constitution on our workplace walls. 

To what extent have we, as an industry, embraced the National Development Plan? How are we going to ensure that the R855 billion that the minister wants to spend on infrastructure over the next three years will be done in a way that is fully aligned to the ideals of the National Development Plan and places the human at the centre of delivery?

The minister’s speech is entitled: “The economy at a crossroads.” I believe our industry is at a crossroads – an industry that has a deep sense of empathy for the people of South Africa and becomes the embodiment of living the National Development Plan. An industry that takes its rightful place at the table and influences the direction of our country. 

Do we continue down the path of business as usual where we place all our attention and energies on producing good technical designs and delivering to our bottom line? Or do we take a different path that places our attention and energies on the end user? 

Mr Mboweni opened up his budget speech with a quote from “A tale of two cities” questioning where we are as a country. On reflecting which path we take, I would like to close with a quote from Kwame Nkrumah:

“It is in our hands to join our strength, taking our sustenance from our diversity, honouring our rich and varied traditions and culture but acting together for the protection and benefit of us all.”

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