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Will the NDP actually start happening?

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 25 September 2014

We have been subjected to the National Development Plan for some time now with various degrees of emphasis. Government, or at least in reality the ANC, continues to use it as a manifesto item typical of political posturing presumably to convince the public (and the voters) that the country is all set to have an era of great investment, new projects, employment opportunities, export improvements, and reversal of the fiscal deficits amongst many attributes. The better life for all stuff. The alliance continues to nitpick at it and academic and research organisations find flaws in the numbers and the statistics as though it is all an exact science. It has taken on the form of a sort of hallucinating drug that one places one’s faith in when faced with the current economic reality. It all depends on what is one’s own perspective of current reality.

Engineers would be inclined to agree on the need for the NDP, the 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) and the spin off from the designing, planning, constructing, commissioning, maintaining and operating of all these projects. These will use all the engineering capacity that we have, and more. Never mind from where the investment funds are to come from, that remains all smoke and mirrors and it’s hard to believe that the country will suddenly find R800 odd billion and then spend it over three years on completed projects.

Perhaps closer to the Engineer’s concern is, if we had all that money, where are we going to find the sufficient number of engineering resources to spend it (properly)? We will avoid contemplating the potential behind the corruption that is now endemically entrenched in our country with very little accountability. The efforts to ascertain the available engineering resources by the PICC/SIPs/DHET/ECSA/Volunteer committees will presumably produce some results but so far the numbers do not seem more than high level estimates. I believe it was an exercise to find out what we already knew: we have a scarce skills problem. My own evaluation is that the systems and processes used cannot measure the extent of the scarcity in a meaningful way if the time frame is that of the SIPs programme. This is an example of breaching a very fundamental engineering ethos: if you cannot measure it, you do not know much about it. Clearly, if the metrics used to measure the scarcity do not take this into account, the process while necessary, is insufficient.

The 18 SIPs projects are reasonably well defined at a high level. From this a start should be made to identify the required resources by a reasonable relationship between project size and type. The reality is however, that those who will need the resources normally specify the needs at a granular level, not a generic level that emerged from this committee. Efforts of the SAIMechE to propose a model to measure the needs, to locate as many as possible from the existing market and to focus Candidate Engineer development in those scarce areas are met with a sort of glazed, unconvinced response by the “authorities”. After all, we have to find ways to spend R800 billion effectively, but it would appear that to spend a few million on getting knowledge of the course to take to manage the scarce skills issue is considered either too expensive or unnecessary. The real reason is uncertain as the response has been nil. If the proposed model were to show a return on investment, it would only have to save about one thousandth of one percent of the programme budget to cover its cost. It’s a no-brainer when one realises the costs, delays and consequences of the scarce skills impact on projects. Take a look at Medupi and the Durban-Jhb pipeline as examples. Consider the impact on infrastructure service delivery alone.  There are legendary other cases out there that show the result of technically incapacitated owners’ teams alone.

But then that makes the assumption that the NDP actually is going to happen. If history is anything to go by, we may still be talking about it this time next year. With elections over and “won”, why hurry? At least it may all work as a dream forming drug.

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