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We must interrogate the manufactured controversy over Cuban engineers coming to South Africa

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By Xhanti Payi
27 Apr 2021 38

Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

Why is the decision to bring Cuban engineers into South Africa so controversial? Is it perhaps to do with the fact that many people agree with Herman Mashaba’s view that the Cuban education system is inferior? Opinions from leading global bodies seem at odds with Mashaba’s understanding of the situation.

The disquiet over the “importation” of Cuban engineers by the government brings to the fore an important discussion on skills and unemployment in South Africa, and how we debate. Until now, many South Africans would have been under the impression that this country suffers a skills shortage, particularly in technical and specialised fields.

This is why some of us have been surprised by the response in both news media and social media to the announcement that the Department of Water and Sanitation had taken on board 24 Cuban engineers to help resolve the challenges faced by the water sector, as well as transfer skills. Most notable among the reports has been one carried by News24 under the headline, “Decision to bring in Cuban engineers to South Africa slammed”, quoting Consulting Engineers of South Africa (Cesa) and political voices such as the Democratic Alliance and Herman Mashaba.

The News24 article quotes Cesa CEO Christopher Campbell as saying, “It also begs the question why so little has been done to leverage our local expertise and grow our own future capacity over the last 20 years.” They also quoted Mashaba, leader of ActionSA, as saying, “SA has some of the best engineers in the world, who graduate from South African funded universities. Many… are sitting at home unemployed”. Mashaba further asserted that, “to import Cuban engineers, who qualified from lower-standard universities than our own world-class engineers, is criminal”.

The News24 article also quotes the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for water and sanitation, Leon Basson, who enquired as to whether “an audit was done on what critical skills are needed”.

AfriForum is quoted in the same article as saying, “South Africa has plenty of experienced, qualified engineers and specialists capable of assisting the department”. Indeed, AfriForum’s sister organisation on labour issues, Solidarity, announced that it had found 120 South African engineers “competent and willing” to assist the government.

A question therefore arises: What is the truth about South Africa and the skills and employment question with regards to engineers? The question of skills and employment in South Africa is a serious one, and cannot be left to political rhetoric or poor news reporting. The question from the official opposition is especially troubling, given information in the public domain, and how we meet the challenges we face in employment and skills.

In February 2021, the Department of Home Affairs published the new draft critical skills list. The list is widely regarded as important for businesses in South Africa that are looking to attract skilled workers, since it allows companies to attain approval to import critical skills. It hadn’t been published since 2014.

In an article published on 16 February 2021, the online publication, BusinessTech quotes Marisa Jacobs of Xpatweb, an organisation in the business of importing skills: “Government’s initiative to fine-tune our immigration system to make it easier for companies to attract the skilled people they need is admirable… We’ve already had record participation in this year’s survey, which indicates how important an issue this is”. In their Critical Skills Survey, Xpatweb found that occupations in the “engineering and ICT sectors remain most in demand”.

The Home Affairs list of critical skills is alarmingly long. And as it relates to the controversial government decision to import Cuban engineers, the list contained “engineering manager, civil engineer, hydrologist, industrial engineer, mechanical engineer, and quantity surveyor”. This list closely resembles the “2020 List of Occupations in High Demand: A Technical Report”, released by the Department of Higher Education working with the University of Cape Town’s Development Policy Research unit.

The Engineering Council of South Africa, which is the authority and regulatory body in this area, makes this assertion about South Africa’s skills situation: “The international benchmark of an average population per engineer shows that South Africa lags behind other developing countries. In South Africa, one engineer services 3,166, compared with Brazil’s 227 and Malaysia’s 543 per engineer. The discrepancy in the benchmark points to one thing: South Africa is severely underengineered.

“The shortage of engineering practitioners is evident in the number of competent engineers available for ongoing projects. It has also led to cases where work which requires input of competent engineers is carried without such input. However, this cannot be allowed to continue as all spheres of government are dependent on engineering services to address vital needs for South African communities.”

Why then is the decision to bring Cuban engineers into South Africa so controversial? Consider for example that in July 2020, the publication Engineering News reported that “a team of German technical experts was planned to come to South Africa to provide essential services to local German businesses and local entities, such as embattled Eskom”. The report said “the agreement is the result of close cooperation between International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas”, and that South Africa would be receiving “engineers, technicians and other experts whose skills are urgently needed to help get the economy going and South African exports rolling again”.

Is it perhaps to do with the fact that many people agree with Mashaba’s view that the Cuban education system is inferior? Opinions from leading global bodies seem at odds with Mashaba’s understanding of the situation.

An article reprinted from The Conversation by the World Economic Forum under the title, “What the world can learn from the Cuban education system” notes the Cuban education system is premised on understanding that only good-quality, empowering education could conquer Cuba’s acute poverty, ignorance and underdevelopment.

“Cuba invested heavily to make its education system world-class. By the 1980s and 1990s, the country’s educational disbursements as a ratio of gross domestic product were among the highest in the world,” the article notes.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) report, “Education for All 2000-2015” noted that “only Cuba reached global education goals in Latin America and the Caribbean”. In its Global Education Monitoring Report 2020 (commonly called the “World Education Report”), Unesco further recognised Cuba’s policies to guarantee inclusive and quality education. It further noted that, “… these results of the island are the result of the political will of the government to ensure education as a fundamental human right, despite the impact of the economic, trade and financial blockade imposed by the United States for six decades and its intensification by the current administration”.

Where then, did Mashaba get the notion that Cuba’s education is inferior, and why did News24 give him the platform to comment on issues of quality of education in Cuba? Mashaba’s beliefs and negative attitude towards foreigners is public knowledge. Why would his views in this regard receive this prominence without being checked?

We should always be circumspect and critical of government decisions. That is the duty of all citizens. But that is not the same thing as assuming poor motives or failing to critically assess the issues so that our engagement helps to build solutions rather than favour special interests.

Is it the view expressed by many on social media that, given the state of water resources in Cuba, their engineers cannot claim to know or teach anyone about water. It is indeed true that Cuba has been widely reported to be suffering water supply shortages. But there are two ways to think about this. We in South Africa accept, as has been reported internationally, that our health system is far too inadequate and crime is too high. Yet our health professionals are sought after internationally, as are our investigators, criminologists and jurists used as experts globally.

It is also accepted that among the reasons for the water issues in Cuba is the economic, trade and financial blockade imposed by the United States for six decades, which has complicated that country’s ability to modernise its infrastructure. And as The New York Times noted in its 15 February 2021 article titled, “An inside look at Cuba’s constant struggle for clean water, “in recent years, infrastructure problems have been compounded by drought and rising temperatures”.

As we know as South Africans, it was our global isolation in the years of apartheid that forced us to build local expertise and institutions to overcome challenges of water and electricity, for example. This did not mean that all or even most South Africans had access to clean water and electricity, yet that expertise existed. 

Perhaps a critical part of the discussion on skills and employment is the detail often overlooked as we rush through the various challenges we face, or the interests we hold inform our position in our issues on critical issues. This also perhaps speaks to the offer by Solidarity to avail 120 engineers who are “competent and willing”. The question must arise as to what are these engineering skills that are said to be available?

Responding to the Department of Home Affairs’ critical skills list, Millicent Kabwe, acting executive: strategic services at the Engineering Council of South Africa (Ecsa) points out that while the list is generally comprehensive, specialisations cannot be overlooked.

“Ecsa accreditation clearly states that professionals can only practice in their field of competence,” she says. “Civil engineers, for example, can specialise in roads, traffic and transportation, hydraulics, water and sanitation, structural or geological disciplines. Experts in one area are not considered competent in another.” We also have to consider that represented interests also can have the effect of distorting critical discussions.

In its statement, Cesa spoke of engineering skills in the private sector which were underutilised. Cesa represents engineers who are consultants and not those who are available for employment in municipalities and other government entities. It argues that consulting engineers have been underused by the government and that “employing highly skilled locally experienced engineers supported by unemployed graduates will provide a more sustainable solution”.

But consulting engineers are not available for employment in government entities and offices, so it is misguided to take its response to this decision by the government to mean Cesa has unemployed experienced engineers looking for work. Cesa argues that the government should use its consulting services, and suggests that it would hire unemployed graduates if it had government work. The proposition itself is interesting and raises other questions, but Cesa cannot be read to say that the government overlooked fit and available engineers in its ranks, who are able to take up positions in government entities and municipalities. 

We also know that National Treasury has directed that government entities downscale the use of consultants and develop skills and competencies within the organisations. 

We should always be circumspect and critical of government decisions. That is the duty of all citizens. But that is not the same thing as assuming poor motives or failing to critically assess the issues so that our engagement helps to build solutions rather than favour special interests.

Sumaya Hoosen, who serves as human capital and skills development executive at the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa, says that the most important benefit of hiring foreign engineers needs to be in the development of local competence and expertise in these much-needed disciplines. Local companies have been hiring foreign engineers, so it’s not a new practice started by the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation.

Jacobs of Xpatweb comments on the critical skills list from the Department of Employment and Labour, which helps companies to import engineers, and notes that, “companies actually prefer local engineers but need employees with the right experience. Hiring expatriates provides mentoring opportunities while meeting that condition”. 

From everything that’s been reported in the news, skills transfer is one of the stated objectives of the government in the importing of Cuban engineers. DM

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All Comments 38

  • Most of the ‘available’ engineers are probably white, and as such are then excluded from working for the government because of BEE. So the thinking here is that they do not count, that it is OK to pretend they are not available, and to waste this taxpayer’s money as a favour to the Cubans…

    • You hit the nail on the head — eg. just remember how many (white) competent engineers were forced out of Escom and other SOE’s ….

  • This excellent article overlooks, and does not ask, the vital question. Did our Government first advertise and seek to recruit local, South African engineers, before even thinking about employing foreign engineers at vast cost, and if local engineers are available is it not better from a strategic perspective to recruit these, allow them to develop further skills and generally upskill our South African skills set?

    Or is rather all this bypassed because of a total focus on skin colour? This is a vital question and South Africans deserve a clear and unequivocal answer.

    • The fact that this obvious question is not dealt with in this article, is a relatively clear indicator of what the governments stance is on that. Arguments such as mentoring etc hold true whether the expertise is local or imported.

    • As one those excluded, I concur fully that the root cause of the shortage of employed engineers is the exclusion of the ‘previously advantaged’ by employment equity and who now ply their trade across the world.

    • After 27 years, the most useful surviving cohorts from the ‘previously advantaged’ era in terms of education and experience are now either reaching retirement age or are so entrenched in their foreign lifestyle that they are unlikely to return to SA for more than a visit. A resource lost forever.

  • The water supply problems in many areas of our country are not as a result of skills shortages, but a shortage of political will to solve them. Adding Cubans will not fix this. (If I may venture, most of our problems could be addressed if there was political will to solve them.)

    • Spot on.
      Seems ‘he doth protest too much’. I am sure if we bothered to look we could find the same number of black engineers! The government did not bother!

  • The cost of the Cuban engineers is R2.7 million per engineer per year. Were these posts advertised for local engineeres at that pay scale?
    At that pay scale I’m sure local engineers would have agreed to rural postings and even coming back from other parts of Africa or Dubai.

    • The thing is the Cuban engineers do not receive that salary, they receive the communistic average, the balance is returned to Cuba as a remittance, much the way that Asian expats contribute to their own economies. Bangladesh remittances are of the order of 40% of GDP.

      • The engineers will be lucky to get 10% of the money. The rest feeds a failed and corrupt regime.
        Sad exploitation of the population.

      • Hell of a long story to try to justify a political decision to benefit an anti-apartheid partner. We all know we have the people and the skills right here in SA. But many are too white… A crying shame it is.

  • Young competent, experienced engineers are emigrating because government is not spending on water infrastructure and their firms have no work. Where government cannot do the work it should be outsourced to preferably local expertise while we still have it and before we lose it all.

  • Every town in this country had a water & sanitation engineer. A far more interesting article would be to find out what happened to them, because now every town has a sewerage problem. Retired engineers would no doubt take the opportunity and fix the problem. They are the wrong race, however.

  • Then there is the possibility that kickbacks are on offer and someone benefits materially from the use of Cuban engineers ……… I am a sceptic in these times. Especially when due process is ignored – such as advertising locally first …….

    • Cuba produces a large number of doctors who are exported as a commodity. Their families remain behind in Cuba as an insurance policy to make sure they return. The doctors themselves get a small fraction of what the Cuban govt is paid, the rest going into cadre funds in Havanna.

      • The ANC has found true love with Cuba. Now we will be propping up that failed regime while depriving our qualified engineers from employment – those who are not “clever blacks” – that our aspirant Nobel prize writer so ardently supports, no matter what!

  • A simple question: Are the Cuban engineers competent in English? Without a common language it is virtually impossible to contribute to “fixing the problem”.

    • The Cuban Drs weren’t – proved to be a huge problem – so of course the Cuban engineers will not be competant in English either.

  • Some statements in this article:
    “But consulting engineers are not available for employment in government entities and offices…”
    “National Treasury has directed that government entities downscale the use of consultants” –
    So rather appoint oversees engineers, than using unemployed consultants?

  • Xhanti Payi, shame on you. You are deliberately misdirecting.
    Are you working towards a post in public relations for the ANC ?

  • The quality of South African Civil Engineers in South Africa is internationally recognised. Witness the numbers of those who have been forced out of employment by BEE regulations, but have no problem (other than the anguish of leaving their homeland, friends and family) in finding jobs elsewhere.

  • Very simple, white engineers are made to feel unwelcome in South Africa and foreigners are deployed instead. There is no logic in that, only prejudice.

  • How much skill transfer has there been in this country to no effect. If local government is incapable of carrying out maintenance then it won’t be long before these plants aren’t working again. I suppose one can say the same about Madame Sisulu.

  • We have every right to be suspicious when government makes decisions that appear dubious. This all could have been avoided if Minister Lindiwe Sisulu would have given the exact reason why the employment of the Cubans was necessary. But in her usual arrogance she deemed this unnecessary.

  • Please stop the senseless dialogue about what an engineer is, who’s is most competent or who is available!
    Why don’t you ask the question who is getting payed, into which bank account, by whom and how much money goes to the engineers and their families in Cuba? Also from which account?

  • One additional question – explain the procurement policy (including insights to the scope of work) followed to obtain engineering services that bypassed the domestic industries an opportunity to tender for the work to be done?

  • This issue is potentially not about skin colour or shortage of skills.
    Its an engineered systems failure that presents an opportunity for corrupt payments to an international kader – its the same medicine used for the Gupta illness!

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