As a first order of business I must pay respects to my predecessor, Bafikile Bonke Simelane, not only for the highly professional way in which he conducted his presidency of Master Builders South Africa, but also for his very erudite and informed monthly Comment in our magazine.
The building industry in South Africa is subject to influences from a welter of sources, perhaps more so than any other national business. Keeping an eye on those influences is a job all on its own. Bonke managed to do that and take in the bigger picture as well.
Whereas retail, tourism, banking and many other essential enterprises are driven predominantly by market forces, the building and construction industry has myriad other impacts, some obvious and others a great deal more subtle. Bonke had his finger firmly on the pulse and regularly told us just where the next threat may be waiting or opportunity to be exploited.
But he didn’t have to be an oracle to spot the elephant so evident on the climatic horizon – a hundred-year record drought.
The factors peculiar to the building industry are often intangible. Whereas supplies, raw materials and labour are common to all industry, builders are often sandbagged by the simplest of needs. The much-vaunted issue of water has never been more top of mind than in the past year in the Western Cape, and as the summer slips into early autumn, the denizens at the Cape scan the horizon for signs of a merciful cold front, and the upper slopes of Lion’s Head are scrutinised for a wisp of cloud that inevitably presages the winter rains.
So it’s water that preoccupies our industry right now on the southern tip and potentially throughout South Africa, and it’s a commodity in enraging short supply. Rarely has the fairest cape been less fair, less green, less juicy than over the past 18 months or so, and seldom has the building industry had to concern itself so desperately with what it had become to consider – rightly or wrongly – a reliable resource.
And if that’s not enough, there’s another essential that is under threat as we wait to hear exactly how the new South African President’s Zexit deals are working out. The other elephant in the room is land.
We don’t argue for a minute that the redistribution of land to those who lost theirs through unfair practices must be restored and, in a way that Cyril Ramaphosa proposes, must have no effect on the economy or the production of food. But as someone wisely said, there’s no nice way to take someone’s property without paying them for it.
So the building industry right across the nation, along with clients the developers watch to see how even-handed the solution will be. Farmers and, industrialists and those that hold development land, play a painful waiting game.
In both cases we can only say, this is no way to move forward as a nation. Water problems are by no means the sole preserve of the Western Cape. The rest of South Africa stands on the brink of equally crippling droughts as climate change establishes its reality. The uncertainty of who will own the land and when, stops development in its tracks.
Both are government issues right now, but it’s time for them to become issues driven by those at the coalface of the economy to exert their considerable influence and tackle the Augean task that is South Africa right now, on the ground.