Dangers in SA Council for Built Environment(SACBE) legislation

July 2008

Proposed changes in legislation are putting the future of valuable professionals, such as engineers, at risk and are also a potential threat to South Africa as a whole.

The threat arises out of proposed changes to the Council for the Built Environment (CBE) Act of 2000 which established a council made up of members of government, the professions including engineers and architects, and members of the public. The objectives of the council, as outlined in the act, were many including the protection of the interests of the public and the promotion of sustainable and natural and built environments.

One very important objective of the council, according to engineering consultant Johan Maartens speaking at a recent meeting of the SA Institute of Measurement and Control in Durban, is the fact that it was to serve as a forum for representatives of the built environment professions. They would then be able to discuss (among other things) the qualifications and education standards for their professions, as well as any legislation that would impact on them.

The professional associations, such as the Engineering Council of SA (ECSA), were to be represented on the CBE but were to continue to independently set the standards for education and experience for their professions. These bodies have historically taken great pains to ensure that their standards for education and experience conform exactly to international norms via international agreements.

Maartens explained that this was vital so that qualifications obtained in South Africa would be accepted worldwide which would not only be to the benefit of the individual, increasing their international mobility, but also to the benefit of the country by ensuring that all practicing built-environment professionals were up to an international standard.

To this end, for example, the ECSA is a signatory to various international agreements including the Washington, Sydney and Dublin Accords as well as to competence standards set by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Agreement, the Engineer Mobility Forum (EFM) and the Engineering Technologist Mobility Forum (ETMF).

Having signed these agreements, and because the council’s independent nature is widely accepted on an international basis, the qualifications it recognises are also recognised internationally. This may all be about to change, says Maartens, if the proposed legislation is enacted.

In terms of the proposals, the CBE is to be replaced by a body known as the SACBE (South African Council for the Built Environment) which will report to the minister and offer recommendations. As with the CBE, it will consist of representatives of government, the public and a representative from each of the professional bodies. With only a single SACBE representative each, the concerns of each of the professions are likely to be drowned out.

Another problem is that the professional bodies will be effectively neutered by being converted into professional boards with the power only to make recommendations and decisions falling entirely within their own ambit. On the 7th of March 2008 the Minister of Public Works published a Policy Document Notice 337 of 2008 in the Government Gazette in which accusations were directed at the professional bodies for “self-regulating” and their “apparent lack of centralized and coordinated plans to swiftly deal with the skills shortage in the sector”.

Maartens said that there were also grave concerns about the wisdom of allowing a single lay person to make decisions on issues as the type of qualification and the level of experience that should be required of professional engineers and others. The setting of the requirements for qualifications is currently done on a peer-review basis by organisations whose overriding concern is to maintain standards in their professions. The fear is that the minister would not be as motivated by these considerations but by other considerations including the temptation to lower standards in the professions in order to get more resources into the professions as quickly as possible.

Reasons for this could include a desire to ensure that greater numbers of people could qualify for the professions, perhaps to satisfy BEE imperatives, or to deliberately debase qualifications gained in South Africa to reduce the international mobility of persons who qualify here in future. The individual would lose by not having an internationally acceptable qualification and the country would lose by not having professionals trained to the highest standard.

Many responses to the legislation have been received from international organisation including the damning comment from The Institution of Professional Engineers – New Zealand (IPENZ) that “We are of the opinion that the proposed changes are so fundamental that the new South African organization could not automatically be accepted as a direct successor to ECSA”. The International Engineering Alliance stated in a letter to ECSA that “…it is not certain whether any government agency could establish that it was sufficiently independent to meet membership criteria”

One possible strategy, which Maartens recommends for professional persons already qualified, and which he is currently following for himself, is to apply for recognition to the relevant engineering institution in the UK. He believes that, in time, professionals may have to complete an internationally acceptable qualification in addition to their South African one.

He also cautioned that the professional boards would have to be meticulous in keeping their voluntary Continuous Professional Development points systems up to international standards so that their members, with internationally recognised qualifications, could keep these current to the satisfaction of the international institutions concerned.

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