A comprehensive guide to an unglamorous yet important vocation.
A brief history of Civil Engineering
For one to talk about a Civil Engineer, it’s only fair for to know how the word engineer came about. In the 17th Century, military engineers started handling the work of civil infrastructure, and the term Civil Engineering was coined. It is the second-oldest branch after military engineering.
In ancient history, the term Civil Engineering did not exist to differentiate those doing civil works (for common people) such as bridge construction, roads, waterways, fortifications; and war machines were created by military engineers. But as the demand grew for construction related to public interest, like buildings, canals, sewage treatment plants grew, Civil Engineering was born.
What exactly is Civil Engineering?
Civil Engineering is an unglamorous branch more functional in nature than charming or rather splendiferous to the eye. It involves the application of knowledge of Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology for the amelioration of the growing numbers of “Homo Sapiens” (affectionately known as human beings).
Civil Engineering, as one of the oldest engineering disciplines, encompasses many specialities with five majors: Structural, Geotechnical, Transportation, Water Resources and Environmental Engineering. One can specialise in one or more of these branches. If you are interested in improvement of others, help in building the nation, there is no better branch better than Civil Engineering.
In short, CEs design and supervise the construction of roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, water supply and sewage systems.
Civil engineering’s relationship with SA
After the engineer has completed their degree programme, they must then satisfy a range of requirements including work experience and exams to obtain professional certification. Certification is done by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). Other bodies affiliated with Civil Engineering include the South African Institute of Civil Engineers (SAICE) and the Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers (ZIE).
Once you’re designated as a professional engineer, there are a myriad of benefits, including but not limited to prepare, sign and seal and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or seal engineering work for public and private clients
In South Africa many Civil Engineers hold supervisory or administrative positions, from supervisor of a construction site to a city engineer. There is a comprehensive gamut where professionals in the field can work that includes, design, construction, research/ academia, and teaching.
Where to study
Okay, this is the burning question for aspiring Civil Engineering practitioners: To enroll at a traditional university or a university of technology (UOT, formerly known as a technikon)?
South Africa boasts a great deal of higher education facilities and world class universities. Traditional universities offer Bachelor of Science (BSc) or Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) degrees. This is where graduate Engineers come from. These degrees are scientific in nature. With enough practical experience, one can go on to register as a Professional Engineer (Pr Eng.) with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).
A graduate from a UOT or FET becomes a technician or a Technologist. Having completed a three-year diploma, one automatically becomes a Civil Engineering Technician, although there are additional requirements for one to register professionally as a Registered Engineering Technician.
An additional full-time study at a University of Technology enables the technician to obtain a Bachelor of Technology (BTech), and with a further two years of practical experience you can register with ECSA as a Professional Engineering Technologist.
You can study further at a UOT for a post-graduate degree (MEng/MSc) and specialise in a particular area of interest. Civil Engineering Technologists and technicians focus on technical and application of civil engineering principles. A particular study showed that having a post-graduate degree doesn’t necessarily offer an edge in the industry, unless you venture into academia.
In 2016, the SA government – through the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) – introduced the Bachelor of Engineering Technology degree (B Eng. Tech) for UOTs as a replacement for the scrapped Diploma and BTech programmes. The new programme tries to redress the knowledge gap between UOTs and traditional universities. No new enrolments were done for the year 2020.
The state of civil engineering in other parts of Africa
Zimbabwe also boasts a limited but sumptuous selection of higher education institutes that equally offer world class educational facilities. Usually a BSc in civil engineering takes five years to complete on a full-time basis, whilst a national diploma takes three years, offered at Polytechnics variant of UOTs in South Africa, with a compulsory one year of national certificate, taking the tally to four years.
With enough practical experience, one can register with the Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers as Professional Engineer after five years. The same applies with graduates from the Polytechnics as Technologists or technician. The level of professionalism also depends on the number of practical years of exposure to the industry.
At a particular juncture Zimbabwe hogged superior expertise engineering across the whole world. When Kariba Dam was completed in 1959, it had the biggest dam wall in the world. Lake Kariba was at the time the biggest artificial lake in the world, but regrettably 86 workers died during the construction of the dam. Today, it is among the largest man-made lakes in the world and the second-largest in Africa after Awan Dam in Egypt.
Malversation, poor leadership and corruption has led to almost total collapse of the Zimbabwean construction industry whilst South Africa has become superior when it comes to infrastructure development. Zimbabwe is ranked as one of the riskiest markets to invest in infrastructure in the world and it has one of the smallest construction markets in Sub-Saharan Africa through 2026. This has led to the sector struggling and not creating jobs for the past decade or so due to the unfavourable business environment.
Why civil engineering is important
Civil engineering is one of the biggest industries in South Africa, with the construction sector being one of the industries having higher employment shares relative to their GDP contribution. It would be a sin to not commend the South African government for its dedication in creating employment for its citizens. One quintessential example is the Public Works initiative, the Expanded Public Works (EPWP). It is one of many programmes aimed at poverty alleviation and employment reduction through public and community service delivery. It is made up of four sectors, with the infrastructure sector being one of the most interesting. It has played a major role in employment creation for the needy. Though not without constraints, it managed to reach its target one year ahead of time and has seen a massive growth since establishment. It’s had a ripple effect along the value chain, from procurement and supply, to the man on the ground holding the shovel digging a tunnel.
Sadly, over four decades of neglect, looting and disastrous policies have not yielded any positive results from the looting cabal. There has been no attempt whatsoever from the Zimbabwean government to address the issue of dilapidated infrastructure, create employment or even attract investment into the country because of this the country has seen a massive emigration of both experienced and graduate civil engineering practitioners. Whole or part is taking a beating and there is no sure way the industry can be salvaged in the near future. With all things being normal and equal Zimbabwe has a substantial potential for growth in all sectors especially the infrastructure development.