Closing the infrastructure gap in South Africa is closely linked to infrastructure development on the rest of the continent, as it is to the creation of value chains that can advance Africa’s industrialisation, ultimately contributing to greater job creation, says Nelson Mandela University (NMU) Infrastructure Development & Engagement Unit (ID&EU) associate Bongani Mankewu.
In conversation with Engineering News, Mankewu refers to Consulting Engineers of South Africa’s (CESA’s) recent call to boost the capacity of State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and government more generally by “opening the way for an injection of private engineering skills and expertise into the public sector”.
This call is not just directed at the national and provincial governments and SOEs, he adds, noting that it should also include municipalities and development finance institutions.
Private sector civil engineers should already have been involved in the public sector, Mankewu says, lamenting the perpetuation of a pitting of interests between government and the private sector, ultimately “creating an etiological lack of agility and inefficiencies in established institutions”, like the Municipality Infrastructure Support Agency (Misa) and SOEs.
“CESA’s call can be accommodated by repurposing Misa’s mandate, [which could assist in meeting the] clearly defined mandate of the Infrastructure Fund to facilitate the said collaboration, while the Investment and Infrastructure Office (IIO) at the Presidency [headed by Dr Kgosientso Ramokgopa] must focus on project preparation in seeking investment,” he tells Engineering News.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has identified the Infrastructure Fund as being expected to use funds from international finance institutions, including the China Development Bank, as well as other development finance institutions and private sector institutions.
The situation, Mankewu states, “forces an honest achromatic collaboration” between industry and the government for challenging unexplored fields of knowledge in the economy and society.
He states that CESA’s call supports such said collaboration, which “needs to be enabled by government with optimal utilisation of discipline”, such as engineering and finance expertise, to “reignite entrepreneurship and the building of effective infrastructure”.
Mankewu stresses that “efficient infrastructure is indispensable for attracting investment”.
He highlights that, with government having in the recent past “disregarded the role of engineers and finance prowess in the economy”, the public sector now lacks the knowledge and skills to effectively structure infrastructure projects.
Further, under waning fiscal conditions in South Africa, infrastructure projects are expected to finance themselves by means of appropriately structured and sustained cash flows.
In turn, this requires carefully prepared projects, and Mankewu says “only engineers have the skills and the agility to converge these complexities caused by tenuous fiscus conditions”.
Touching on how this could lead to further employment opportunities and the delivery of better-quality projects, Mankewu explains that “properly prepared projects will lead to accretion on the downstream value chain” if localisation policies are deployed efficiently.
“Infrastructure is an antecedent of industrialisation, and only industrialisation can potentially create the needed jobs in South Africa.”
Overall, Mankewu tells Engineering News that he supports CESA’s call as “the right stance to take”, considering the “desperate need by all sectors of the society to turn around the economy [and that] this can be achieved by optimal utilisation of internal resources”.
He adds that for any economy to prosper through technology-driven productivity, “engineers are paramount”.
In support of this, Mankewu explains that centres such as the ID&EU at NMU are critical in assisting with project preparation that focuses on standards.
“Design and definition of standards is irreplaceable for the attainment of local value chains, [and] local content can never be achieved if standards are not defined according to the needs of the local economy,” he elaborates.
According to Mankewu, industry, finance institutions and academic centres of excellence, working together with an emphasis on standards to achieve global competitiveness, can assist economies achieve this in infrastructure implementation.
“The ID&EU strongly believes that engineering and finance under efficient regulated environments can be a catalyst in resolving infrastructure deficiencies in South Africa and the continent,” he adds, noting that infrastructure project preparation “is fundamental to define infrastructure as an asset class that can sustain itself through prudently structured cash flows”.
In this regard, Mankewu applauds President Ramaphosa’s establishment of the Infrastructure Fund and the IIO, as well as the recent acknowledgement at the highest level that infrastructure is a driver of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
“It is encouraging to learn that the President intends to drive infrastructure in realising the AfCFTA, for which the African Peer Review Mechanism is of importance,” he comments.