‘For Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ Alexander Pope
It is perhaps madness to tackle a topic so pregnant with recriminations, emotion and politics. I do this because the papers in this issue emphasize, in technical terms, the hazards in mining and smelting, to workers, to the public and to the environment. Similar hazards are present in all major engineering endeavours: as in air travel, road transport, concrete structures and fire and explosions in chemical plants, to give but a few well known examples. There is a paramount need for stringent performance and discipline by employees in design, maintenance and operation. In the mining and metallurgical industry there is an additional significant dimension, the continued R&D priority to improve safety commensurate with increasing performance demands. Such disciplines have impacts on the professional institutes, far more than the business world. But the institutes, being predominantly scientific and technically orientated, tend to scoff at emotional issues, which often deny logical decision making and leave it to the politicians. But empowerment and affirmative action is a matter that cannot be ignored, least of all in the light of the latest legislation for continuing updating of skills for professional engineers and associated technicians and scientists. This responsibility to the public makes demands on many levels of management, even directorate.
The latter not only have a responsibility to ensure the correct staff are selected, but also that funds are made available and the systems are in place to ensure the work is monitored. What I am saying is possibly best expressed in more brutal but pragmatic terms. The appointment of incompetents into vital positions is a recipe for disaster. Even the concept of inactive ‘passengers’ or sinecure positions, for whatever reason, is hardly more acceptable in terms of morale and motivation. What are the ways of addressing the problem of this country in bringing up to speed the very large number of disadvantaged people to a level where they can share fairly and proudly in the benefits of our booming economy? Surely the answer is obvious and pragmatic. It is to intensify our efforts to replace affirmative action by offering recruitment as learnership trainees, apprentices or in skills acquisition positions with some creative thinking in devising suitable designations, which must be acceptable to the authorities demanding fulfilment of quotas.
It is becoming so clearly evident that the shortage of skills, experience and expertise is critical and such an alternative approach can only be beneficial to everyone. This is of course applicable to all age groups and categories of the underprivileged, and of course to be superimposed on a huge uplifting of education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. This latter is a topic in its own right, which has often been discussed in this column This alternative to arbitrary ‘quota’ appointments will mean additional mentors, organizers, funding and targets replacing quotas. To find the mentors and provide the organization we should call on the registration bodies and professional councils working with the appropriate government departments.
There are a host of retired professionals who are likely to be happy to be involved, provided they are appreciated as contributors and paid. Most important is the question of targets in the sense of prescribed outcomes, and it is essential to avoid tokenism. It is on this score that there is much controversy and a need for some rational thinking... In broad terms, we live in a country with about 50 million people of whom 80% are black, 10% coloured and Indians, and 10% white. Does this mean that the target for affirmative action and empowerment must be nine previously underprivileged for every one white employee or director or shareholder? Of course not! I am sure that no one would consider this an attainable or reasonable target and certainly not for quite a few generations, after which time one hopes that there exists one nation with no need for any racial classification whatsoever. What are the targets for ‘restitution’? This question seems to defy rationality in most aspects of the debate.
A typical example is in selection of national sports teams. Are the percentage quotas for representation in soccer teams to be the same as in rugby? Obviously not, because by far the majority of black people prefer to play soccer and a small minority have ambitions on the rugby field. The pragmatic answers lie in obtaining participation figures for the race groups and to match these to quotas. But no one seems to be collecting the statistics for this in any of the activities in society. In the case of the engineering professions it seems that the powers in government already recognize this general principle. An example exists in the draft Engineering Academy Bill put out by the DST. Representation on the ‘council’ of the Academy is prescribed. ‘The Council must be constituted in a manner that is broadly representative of the demographics of the registered engineers.’ So it seems that we, as an engineering professional institute, should start by requiring a racial designation on all our membership forms so as to get the statistics properly recorded and promoting targets that represent a quantum leap in all levels of technical recruits.
Not an easy or comfortable thought, but a lot better than a disaster that would inevitably result in putting incompetents in key positions as a result of imposed quotas. To many this is not pragmatism but concepts that are not feasible economically because of the enormous cost of uplifting the teaching professions at all levels. I would like to refer such people to a previous Journal Comment in which I maintain that expenditure on education and creation of skills to overcome unemployment is a self-generating profitable exercise. I proposed setting up ‘education bonds’ offering an acceptable rate of return to attract a small percentage of the trillions of rands invested in the share market by the financial institutions.
I am not alone in such thinking. In a recent article, (The Guardian, 21 May, 2007), Larry Elliott proposes a similar concept in the form of a levy against currency transactions to alleviate poverty. One only has to look at the losses incurred by five days of electricity failure in Bedfordview, to recognize that the cost of the status quo alternative might be much higher than that of the remedy.
R.E. Robinson May 2007
- Written by R.E. Robinson
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