Beware of high horses

26th August 2022

By: Terry Mackenzie-hoy


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About 20 years ago, I was phoned up by a client who said that she happened to be selling a 17-storey property in Cape Town. She wanted the sale to go through quickly and, as a result, she needed the electrical certificate of compliance for the property in a great hurry. Could I help her?

I went along to the 17-storey property and inspected it from the ground up. I found it to be typical of a building about 12 years old (as it was). There was some electrical work that did not comply with the regulations, but nothing of any great import. I made a list of what was defective and gave it to an electrical contractor and told him to do the repair work, which he duly did. I inspected the repair work, approved it and notified the client accordingly, extracting from the client a modest fee. It would have been much less modest, if I could have detected what would soon unfold.

About a week after the whole thing had been put to bed, I got a phone call from the client to say the new owner was terribly unhappy with my analysis of the defects associated with the property, which he now had his own contractor remedying. I said I was surprised and that I would go and investigate further. I found that the building, which, less than three weeks earlier, had been in reasonable condition, was now full of electrical supply boards which were being rewired or which had been dismantled. I asked the electrical contractor who was working on them (not the person who had done the work for me) what was going on. He said that the electrical system had been in terrible condition, and he was repairing it. Owing to the client being in a great hurry, he was working 18 hours a day. I asked him if the installation had been inspected before he started work. “Yes,” he said, “it had been in a terrible condition.” This was patently untrue, but I had no way of proving it. I had taken one or two photographs, but I had not photographed the whole installation because I couldn’t see the point to it. (Big mistake – I should have had photographs from the very top to the bottom.)

All went quiet for a few months. I then got a summons from the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), which claimed that I had said the distribution boards were all in reasonable condition, but they were not. ECSA wished to hear my version of events and, if this was unsatisfactory, it was going to recommend that I be deregistered as a professional engineer.

As it turned out, I attended the ECSA inquiry and was easily proved to be acting in good faith, by asking my own contractor to give his version of what had happened. The inspectors half-believed what I said and appointed another professional engineer to further investigate. The appointed engineer was one of those who “knew it all” and I met him and showed him my photographs and comments from the electrical contractor I had employed, and I believed the matter to be finished. But no! He gave an unpleasant sort of grin and arranged that we meet on site in the basement of the building concerned. With a vicious glee, he opened the entrance to the 6 600 V distribution chamber. It was a frightening sight. Many of the cables had broken off. Some of the connections were not to standard and, in some instances, there were open live wires. In a ringing tone, he asked if I did not think this part of the installation represented a collection of a severe number of dangerous defects, which I had not bothered to include in my report.

I waited until we met ECSA again before I pointed out that the defective items we had seen didn’t belong to my client, but the municipality, and I hoped ECSA would raise the matter with them.

The building is still there and I’m still an engineer.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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