Defend Truth


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


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

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.

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. DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9072″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    What a powerfully authentic account and analysis! Now how do we proceed to fix this mess, Prof Marwala?

  • David Bristow says:

    Excellent piece. But given our government of patronage and graft, this will not change until the voice of the people, those most effected, rises up and demands change. How long must we wait?

    • Louis Potgieter says:

      The people must first rise up and demand change. They can be catalysed into rising up, and those with a political bent must find ways of doing it, instead of just feeling helpless.

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    Well written commentary based on experience, it simply states the obvious, you can install an engineerred solution to a real problem, but you also need to engineer the maintenance of that system.
    From water supply to Eskom that is the big failing.

  • Paul Fanner says:

    I have a suspicion that the Competition Commission is partly responsible for the engineering woes of small towns. Used to be, when consulting engineers charged statutory rates, there was no point in putting out tenders for engineering work. So each town had a longstanding relationship with “its” consulting engineering firm. Cosy, unfair to would be new entrants, but efficient,with advice on tap, and institutional memory. Now work is tendered, thus getting the worst work from the lowest tenderer.

  • Stephen Stead says:

    Wonderfully written with deep insight into the true nature of the problem. Thank-you Prof

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Brilliant article by a professional in his field. Thank you

  • Schalk Burger says:

    Let me state up front – I am an engineer and thus biased – this article is brilliant and honest. Well done. Many of us can see the chaos and suffering in our society and we are here, wanting to improve and contribute – even for no personal gain. Engineering types generally are not greedy, politicians or crooks! BUT we want to see things get better all the time. Thanks Professor!

  • mike muller says:

    A common problem but not complicated to fix and doesn’t need an engineer or 5G. A mobile phone to report the leak to a municipal call centre that answers and passes the message to the water services office. They despatch a plumber in a bakkie, who turns off the two valves and, with the help of perhaps two assistants to dig and pump out the water, replaces the pipe with one of the same spec that is always kept in store.

    To fund the million or so a year for bakkie, plumber, two assistants, small pump and spare pipes, remove a top tier of municipal management who have little work to do.

    Manage performance by setting target times: 8 hours for a simple problem, one day for a complicated one. If targets are not met, identify and fix the obstacles; if failures are consistent, review the position of the head of water services.

    An engineer should run the water services. Aside from spending 30 minutes a day checking the repair and maintenance functions, s/he would monitor water supply and use (and ensure it is billed and paid for), identify deficient areas and promote (prepare, propose, approve and implement) actions to remedy them.

    But who is responsible? Thohoyandou/Thulamela Local Municipality (of which Duthuni is part) is not the water supplier! Vhembe District municipality, is the official water services authority and runs the supply. So does Thulamela even need a water services manager?! In the end, is the problem technical or institutional?

    • Charles Parr says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s a management problem.

    • Livhuwani Nemuthenga says:

      Than you for providing clarity. In many instances we tend to clap hands and praise the critics and opinion makers who in actual fact have gone over board and missed a point. Doing away with some of the contracted services can free the funds to hire relevant skills and procure equipment. Education is also required to teach municipal employees to take pride in their work.

    • Mark Schaufelbuehl says:

      Well said Mike….. More apprentices to learn the basics and the good ones go on to do the engineering. Some (few) can do the management. Countries take have taken this approach have a functioning water supply.
      With some insight (and a bit of luck) come opportunities to develop speciality equipment (eg. Geberit) to sell to others. More jobs and wealth… and ideas to avert the serious future water crises that await us. And before long the Cuban engineers can again solve their our water problems…. maybe with SA support 😉

  • André van Niekerk says:

    @ Paul Fanner
    This is very true. One of the biggest hidden costs in local government is the cost of so-called “fairness and equity” (my words). In an attempt to being so absolutely “fair”, and providing “everybody” an equal chance, real delivery has declined to a point of almost coming to a stop. The true cost of putting every project out to open tender is enormous, especially in terms of time costs. In a big city, the time consumed to follow a full procurement process (from putting out to tender to award of the tender to the successful contractor) is not less than a year, often more like 18 months. That is for the sake of being able to prove that there was no unfair treatment, or corruption.

    Corruption should not be tolerated at any level. But the cost of “total fairness” may be similar or more than that of corruption. I would like to see a reputable institute do such a study.

    As you mention, the relationship an engineering company had with a town, had multiple benefits, not least being an understanding of the local conditions, including that of the condition of existing services.

    Fairness and equity can still be achieved by allowing a group of service providers to become available to specific towns or neighbourhoods, providing longer term commitments; provided that such opportunities be distributed across the industry.

    Current, narrow procurement rules and an “audit” approach aimed at finding the guilty, is costing the country dearly.

  • ALLAN WARD says:

    Apart from a lack of skills there is no commitment to provide first class services meaning systems that function. When there is a problem no one takes responsibility to rectify the situation.

  • Frans Ferreira says:

    As an engineer myself ,with all the bells and whistles in place. the most frustrating part of my work was that your client usually didn’t have the faintest idea of what the problem was. The smaller the local government the bigger the problem, specially the maintenance of the project. An analysis done by the U K Navy showed that the total cost of a was roughly 49% to build the infrastructure , 2 % engineering cost and 49% for the maintenance of the system during it’s lifetime. Unfortunately this last part is never brought into the equation!

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Brilliant article ,straight and to the point. We need him as minister of water and sanitation!!!!

  • Livhuwani Nemuthenga says:

    Great article as always from one of the best brains of our times. You are the inspiration for many.

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