Opinion: For want of an engineer, the water was lost; for want of the water… a country was lost — all for the want of an engineer

Date: Feb 9, 2022 | News, Opinion Pieces


South Africa’s failure to supply clean water and sanitation is human-made. Our leadership core is too monolithic and lacks critical skills such as engineering, planning, and understanding of the political economy, writes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala

Prof Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ, a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force, and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He recently penned an opinion piece published by Daily Maverick.

For want of an engineer, the water was lost; for want of the water… a country was lost — all for the want of an engineer Prof Tshilidzi Marwala (08 February 2022)

Last December, I went to my village, Duthuni, and it was raining. This entailed navigating the muddy and slippery streets. At the time, I wished I had a 4×4 vehicle as this would have eased the burden of driving on muddy and slippery roads. My mother warned me that there was a ditch that I should avoid and gave me its location. She did not give me the GPS coordinates but a verbal location. Of course, digital technology, i.e. GPS, is always more accurate than analogue technology, i.e. my mother’s word of mouth. It is precisely for this reason that the quest for a digital world is desirable because it brings with it accuracy, precision, and rationality.

Despite her warnings, I fell into the ditch and was at a loss about how I would get myself out of this mess. Ultimately, we found a tow truck, which was used to get me out. What was the source of the ditch? Before 1977, people in my village used to get their water from a river stream 2km from our house. It was common then to see women carrying buckets of water on their heads. Why only women were responsible for this and not men is the legacy of patriarchal norms that we are still trying to challenge and eliminate, not only in my village but across the globe.

Some progress has been made in Duthuni Village. For the first time in the history of our village, our Chief, Khosi Ndwamato Ligege, is a woman. Without undermining her very capable father, she is definitely the best Chief we have ever had!

In 1977, water was brought closer to our homes. Every street had water pipes where we would go and fetch water. Instead of travelling for 2km to get water, we had water 200m from our home. This involved laying down water pipes across the village. It meant building an underground dam called Kom Kyk, which means “come and see”. It was a marvel to see, and a white man (a rarity to see there at the time) who used to come to take readings is perhaps the first person that inspired me to consider becoming an engineer. Now I have a mechanical engineering degree, I am a professor of electrical engineering and a registered professional engineer. History has a way of finding its path of least resistance.

The engineering behind these pipes and the dam in my village was so impressive that the water system is still in use and requires minimal maintenance. When the democratic dispensation came in 1994, water was brought into our homes.

But something else soon started happening — our water supply would disappear for months. The situation was so dire that my family had to dig a borehole and start using underground water. Maintenance became the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Maintenance is a complex task involving logistics, engineering, finance, and leadership, which is not readily available in the Thulamela Local Municipality where my village is located.

Because of this lack of maintenance, the water pipe burst and water has been gushing out for more than a year, forming the ditch I drove into. My mother said to me, “but we voted for this government; why is it abandoning us?” My answer to her is that this is like voting for a plumber and expecting him or her to perform brain surgery. Impossible! If you don’t have an engineer in your leadership cohort, you must expect engineering related issues to remain unsolved.

Where have we gone wrong? Why are water and sewage overflowing into the streets in our cities and towns? The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is about clean water and sanitation. Can we claim clean sanitation if our cities smell due to gushing sewage? Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, hepatitis A, dysentery and typhoid are caused by poor sanitation.

Is it not a crime against humanity that we subject our people to poor sanitation and thereby expose them to diseases?

South Africa’s failure to supply clean water and sanitation is human-made. It is caused by our inability to elect fit and proper people to govern. Our leadership core is too monolithic and lacks critical skills such as engineering, planning, and understanding of the political economy. Political conversations in South Africa revolve around nationalisation, appropriation, and monopoly capital.

One can be forgiven for mistaking the current talks in South Africa for conversations held 60 years ago. South Africa’s body politic still lingers too much in the past and lacks focus on the future and all aspects that will drive that future, such as technology.

For example, machine learning provides various solutions from predictive analysis to manage our supply networks, data analysis to track water consumption and water end-users, and sewage treatment plants or desalination plants. If this had been applied ahead of the pandemic, we could have easily identified which schools do not have water instead of the presently used inefficient manual audits.

What is apparent is that we need to bring South Africa into the 21st century to see this in action. Suppose we use these technologies intelligently when servicing remote parts of the country and densely populated areas, then we could subvert the conversation around service delivery, which is perceived as hopeless and tainted in South Africa.

Secondly, South Africa’s body politic seems to have reached unprecedented levels of corruption that are now threatening the very essence of the South African state. The nature of South African corruption is that its beneficiaries like to use the proceeds of crime to consume foreign-made goods and services. Trips to Dubai, French wines and clothes and European cars such as Bentleys seem to be the preferred choices.

Thus South Africa’s corruption quickly becomes a balance-of-payments crisis. Our balance of payment measures our ability to purchase foreign goods. Perhaps the time has arrived for lifestyle audits to evolve in our culture, but this is no easy feat when the very people who benefit from this crime are tasked with the responsibility of changing it.

In those luxury posts on Instagram by our new elites lie the very resources that are supposed to fix our water problems.

The third reason is that our municipalities are bereft of essential critical skills. For example, all municipalities must have town or city professional mechanical, civil and electrical engineers. Burst pipes require comprehensive knowledge of civil engineering skills. The replacement pipes require good planning, logistics, and finance. This situation becomes exacerbated in rural municipalities.

Fake qualifications are common in the public sector. The Prasa issue of “Dr” Mthimkhulu, where he claimed a doctorate in engineering while not completing an undergraduate degree, is a glaring example of the impact of fake qualifications. We need to have systematic qualification requirements and verification to ensure that people are qualified for the job.

In the philosophy of existentialism, a scholarly thesis by Jean-Paul Sartre proposes that “existence precedes essence”, meaning that we create our own value and reality. South Africa must create its own essence, i.e. working democracy, ethical leadership etc, to create the country we deserve, i.e. effective government that delivers clean water and sanitation.

As British journalist Rose George surmises, “because sanitation has so many effects across all aspects of development — it affects education, it affects health, it affects maternal mortality and infant mortality, it affects labour — it’s all these things, so it becomes a political football. Nobody has full responsibility.”

Yet, it is apparent given the weight of sanitation that this lack of responsibility cannot be an enduring legacy.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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