INFRASTRUCTURE

The great challenge

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Carefully planned and meticulously executed strategies are needed in order for growth and development through infrastructure to occur on the local government level. With infrastructure development being one of local government’s main focal points, the challenges faced by municipalities are enormous—and infrastructure development projects denote a far more complex process than the ease of demanding entails. This was the outcome of a workshop on growth and development through infrastructure at local municipalities at the recent ArcelorMittal Skills Development Summit held in Pretoria.

Speaking on the importance of proper and efficient project management that should accompany big projects such as infrastructure development, Professor Willem Louw — director of the Centre for Business Management of Projects at the University of Stellenbosch Business School—said the conversations in business schools about project management and infrastructure have seen a distance being created between practical reality and theory.

“In our business schools at the moment, we’re paying scant attention to project management. We have it as an elective for perhaps one class in an MBA week. And some of us continue and some of us don’t, but that’s about the magnitude of taking further management training, particularly in the MBA space, and dealing with what happens in the world of managing projects and the world in terms of how we’re going to have some of the conversation today with regard to skills that are required. There’s a lot of this debate ... we keep on as managers, we talk about others.

“We talk about those who require the skills, we talk about the engineers, we talk about the technicians, we talk about the learnerships, but we never talk about ourselves: what it is that we as decision makers in the business space also require as skills that need to come to the fore. We need to think about how we’re going to manage. We need to capacitate. We need to have the skills to do it, but we also need to manage them,” he says.

Louw simplifies the process and refers to concepts that are common in what he calls the upfront phases. For the sake of convenience, he emphasises business planning, scope development and project definition when referring to these concepts. “Those are the first three. If you want to, you can talk pre-feasibility, you can talk feasibility, and you can talk basic engineering. It is that front-end part of the game where the conversation does not happen and it does not happen within the management team or within the executive space.

“There is so much dependence on the technical people to solve their issues, that by the time the money is approved after project definition, then it is left in the hands of those who need to take it forward in terms of the project team. But in the meanwhile, there is a significant amount of key decision making that needs to take place in this upfront space to ensure there is a higher probability of success going into execution,” he says.

Yolisa Mashilwane, HOD: Transport Planning & Provision at the Ekurhuleni Metro, engaged the audience in what she refers to as “an honest and frank discussion around infrastructure in our country”. Knowing the challenges associated with infrastructure development projects all too well, she is currently working on a bus rapid transit (BRT) system project.

“I work for government, running a R2-billion project over the next three years, in what is coined the bus rapid transit systems. This is one of the most complex projects I have ever worked on. When you are running a project of this magnitude in an environment where there is a serious lack of skills, you go to bed an engineer and wake up in the morning a lawyer, because of the legal documentation you have to go through. By midday, you are a chief negotiator with the taxi industry. By the time you finish work, you have become a financier. The point I am trying to make is that the problem is bigger than we think.”

Mashilwane says when faced with a project of this size, there is unfortunately no time for textbooks. “You have to make things work on the ground. Wait until you face that crowd in the evening and everybody wants a job. Which chapter in the textbook is that? It does not exist. You are not going to find it anywhere. You are not going to find a chapter that deals with the taxi industry refusing to allow you to go out and tender for their technical adviser, when they can see there is a section 36 clause in the Municipal Finance Management Act.

“I acknowledge the scarce skills, I acknowledge the work done around project management, but when you have to deliver services, you live for the day. You’d rather make those mistakes there on the ground than sit in the boardroom and try to figure out what to do when it’s time to do.
“The biggest challenge is that we go to the communities and we tell them, phase one of the BRT in Ekurhuleni starts here, you can see the big plant is out there. And the guys look at you and they ask, ‘Are you going to give us a red flag to wave for traffic, because we are looking for real jobs’,” she relates.

Due to the scarcity of skills, Mashilwane acknowledges they rely heavily on consultants from the private sector to assist them. She says one of the biggest challenges remains young graduates not joining the public sector. And maybe it is because when they go to their rates offices to pay their rates, they find what they think is there — a mistaken belief.

Mashilwane does, however, concede that the rate at which they are implementing is slower than the demand on the ground, simply because there is no capacity. “I think this is where we partner with the private sector in terms of the skills transfer. I need not tell you the benefits of investing in infrastructure in the country; it speaks for itself,” she says.

Infrastructure development projects are not all doom and gloom. Poppie Sera, Project Manager at Rand Water, said that in November 2010 National Treasury approached various state-owned entities, especially those that were well-established, to assist with the graduate internship project with the following focus: to give unemployed graduates an opportunity to get practical training in their respective functional areas; to create decent employment, which is one of the 12 presidential outcomes; and to create a pool of readily employable engineers, scientists, technicians and artisans.

Rand Water was appointed as the implementing agent for the project and the Rand Water Academy (RWA) was mandated for the rollout of this programme. The mandate was to train and develop unemployed graduates from Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State to assist the local water services authorities in the science, apprentice process controllers, and engineering fields.
“The goal of the RWA through this programme is to develop a pool of skills and capable workforce that shares in and contributes to the benefits and opportunities of economic expansion and inclusive growth path. Therefore, the RWA embarked on a graduate internship programme, water and waste-water funded under the auspices of National Treasury, to assist municipalities with capacity, infrastructure support-related projects and service delivery,” she says.

The RWA has successfully established partnerships with the City of Tshwane, Ekurhuleni Metro, eMalahleni, Govan Mbeki and Thembisile Hani Local Municipality, which saw graduates being deployed over the last 18 months. Before graduates were deployed to these municipalities, size inductions were conducted to get an understanding of what municipalities are facing in terms of challenges.

“The following challenges were identified: skills development initiatives, human resources capacity, infrastructure development and maintenance, legislative compliance in Blue Drop and Green Drop systems. The RWA, developed with workplace training and practical experience in real working conditions and practices, responded with technical assistance,” she says.

Sera further highlights the successes the RWA has achieved—and in terms of human capacity, where graduates were deployed to recipient municipalities, assistance is now being given, which enhances service delivery. “In eMalahleni we have deployed 24 graduates, inclusive of the process controllers and water quality generals. Govan Mbeki had 19 graduates, Thembisile Hani received eight graduates, City of Tshwane received five graduates and Ekurhuleni received 17 graduates. The remainder of 44 graduates were taken on the second intake. Portable test kits were also handed over to these recipient municipalities. eMalahleni has nine clients and received nine test kits; Govan Mbeki had five plants, and they received five kits. After conducting the training, the assessment was also conducted to confirm the competencies.

“Municipalities have responded positively by saying the process control test training that was conducted and the test kits are assisting in their process of plant optimisation. Some have indicated they will factor the cost of these kits in their budgeting in order to continue with this process beyond the duration of the graduates programme,” she concludes.

Nilo Abrahams

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