The 24 Cuban engineers the South African government has imported to help fix the country’s water crisis are not allowed to carry out engineering work unless their qualifications are thoroughly assessed and approved, or they are supervised by a registered engineer.
This is according to the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), the country’s official body mandated by the Engineering Profession Act (EPA) to accredit engineering programmes, register persons as professionals in specified categories, and regulate the practice of such professionals.
ECSA was responding to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu welcoming the arrival of the engineers last week.
The engineers were brought in to assist on a project to restore water infrastructure as part of a 2014 bilateral agreement between South Africa and Cuba.
“The highly-qualified Cuban specialists will assist as advisors at provincial and local levels across the country, sharing their vast skills in the areas of mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering, as well as project management,” the department stated.
The department told News24 the project would cost approximately R65 million in the current financial year.
ECSA CEO Sipho Madonsela said there are regulatory issues which prevent the government from using the Cuban engineers to carry out work on water infrastructure.
South Africa – through ECSA – is a member and signatory of three International Engineering Alliance (IEA) Accords – namely the Sydney, Dublin, and Washington Accords – that govern the recognition of engineering educational qualifications and professional competence.
“Being a member of the IEA places ECSA and South Africa on par with its international counterparts in terms of the quality assurance of engineering education, registration, and professional practice,” Madonsela stated.
For this reason, the recognition of engineers from Cuba or any other country was not automatic.
As Cuba is not a member of the IEA or a signatory of any of the agreements, its engineering qualifications were not officially recognised in South Africa.
Madonsela said the Cuban engineers therefore had to first apply for professional registration with ECSA before they could perform engineering work on South Africa’s infrastructure.
This would require that the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) evaluate the engineers’ qualifications according to the academic standards of the NQF Act.
“The council conducts education evaluation according to Policy E-17-P in order to determine if the application is substantially equivalent to BSc/BEng base qualifications according to ECSA qualification standards,” Madonsela said.
“The ECSA assessment is technical in respect of the engineering components and to determine if the Cuban graduates are competent and eligible for registration,” he said.
Madonsela added while the EPA does not make ECSA registration mandatory in South Africa, failure to do so significantly limits the amount of work a person can carry out.
“Being a non-registered person limits the scope of engineering work because in the absence of ECSA registration an engineer cannot sign off on engineering projects and designs, as that work can only be performed by ECSA registered engineers,” Madonsela stated.
“Furthermore, if an engineer is not registered they have to work under the supervision of a professionally-registered engineer across all professional categories – Pr Eng, Pr Tech Eng, Pr Techni Enge and Pr Cert Eng,” Madonsela added.
Political parties and labour organisations have in recent days slammed the government’s decision to obtain help from Cuba at the expense of local talent.
Labour union Solidarity has sent the department a list of 120 South African engineers who it said were qualified, competent, and willing to help fix the country’s water infrastructure.
Solidarity CEO Dirk Hermann said there was simply no excuse for the government not to use South Africa’s own resources.
The union said it was unjustified to import foreign workers in the midst of an unemployment crisis, with South Africa’s official unemployment rate at almost 33%.
“It is a shame that the government itself does not take the president’s call earlier this year to support local employees and businesses seriously,” Hermann stated.
“If the minister was truly unable to find local workers who wanted to do the work, then she did not search very hard. Thus, we will bring the engineers to her.”
Many commentators have also criticised the government for choosing professionals from Cuba in particular – a country which itself is reportedly struggling to meet the water needs of its own citizens.
A report from the New York Times claimed that Cuba was in a constant battle to supply clean water, with a vast array of workers – including inspectors, fumigators, truck drivers, and pipe layers – required to coordinate every day to bring clean water to Cubans.
“For much of the population, running water is available only sporadically — in some cases, for one or two hours a day, every few days,” the report stated.
Sisulu has defended the decision, however, claiming that the Cubans had helped solve similar water problems in their country.
She has maintained that no South African civil engineers were willing to work in rural areas for three years.
However, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) last month said that no one from the government had approached it for assistance on addressing the water crisis.
According to an investigative report from Netwerk24 journalist Jana Marx, there are currently around 1,000 unemployed civil engineers in the country.