DREAMS AND REALITY

DREAMS AND REALITY

What could be better than a cheque handed over, on time, at the end of a completed contract? Possibly the prospect of work for the next few decades on a mega-billion rand project that would most definitely take its place in the history books – one way or another.

John Matthews, President, Master Builders South Africa

Both seemed to be possibilities from the very bullish State of the Nation address by President Ramaphosa late in June, when, together with his reference to the private sector’s commitment to invest R840 billion over the next five years, for a range of projects, he also said he dreamed of an entirely new city to meet the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

There is no doubt that a multi-billion rand injection from any source, has the potential to meet the promise of 155 000 new jobs he described, which will  have a spin-off for the building industry both in terms of capital and employment. But the dream of a massive new city, complete with skyscrapers, had many South Africans expressing reservations about its feasibility, in spite of the President’s strong motivation and some high-profile global precedents.

However, right now, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the health of the building industry in South Africa (among the other industries servicing the private and public sector) is the less than prompt payment for work done. As I have discussed in earlier Comments, industry leaders are consistently addressing this difficulty at every corporate and government level, to the point where a discussion on the subject is on the cards with the President himself.

Because good and bad practices have a distinct knock-on effect – non-payment by clients both public and private to their primary contractors, means that the next level of service providers doesn’t get paid and the dominoes start to fall.

One can be encouraged by Mr Ramaphosa’s strongly-articulated intention to create an ethical government – which can only in practice imply that the State will, among others, meet its commitments to contracts with service providers, that include timeous payments for work done.

Another perennial preoccupation for the industry is Health and Safety, the major emphasis on which dates back to 1964, when regions first took part in a national competition and it was extended to two categories – Building and Allied Trades.

Today it remains one of the big events on our calendar and is competed in 10 different categories with up to 50 regional Association winners entered into the national competition. Independent auditors have just been appointed for this year and the list of all entries from the regions has been finalised. The outcomes will be interesting and vitally important to this aspect of our industry

We have much on our minds at the moment and notwithstanding the lofty dreams of our country’s leader, we remain in a state of uncertainty.

John

THE FAT LADY HAS YET TO SING

It’s been a waiting game, these past few months, and the opera ain’t over yet. Most of the waiting has been for results that would largely be out of our control, both as individuals and as industries that rely on positive conditions in our economic environment so we can do our best work.

First we waited for the national and provincial elections, anticipated with great apprehension against a background of nine years of poor governance and collapsing infrastructure. Our hope was that when the country voted, it would choose to back regeneration. And in a way, many people that voted the ruling party back into power, did decide to support what they believed would be a changed, recharged, repentant environment under new leadership.

John Matthews, President, Master Builders South Africa

Whether that decision, albeit tentative, considering the lower percentages both in voting numbers and margins, will be rewarded with prompt, real, valuable change, remains to be seen. So we wait some more.

As responsible South Africans with the interests of our country paramount in our minds, most of us would be satisfied with an assurance of integrity and competence in the day-to-day business of the country. Most of us would be happy if South Africa was again seen by the foreign community as a place where investment was safe, where land could be bought without fear of loss, and immigrants could find a new haven, where their skills would be valued.

But most of all we crave a time when our citizens at all economic levels receive a fair deal in line with their efforts and entitlement. A time when hard work and acquired skills will result in real rewards and due respect.

This might sound idyllic - but South Africa is one of the countries of the world where such time-honoured ambitions are achievable. We have come through huge changes already, proving that willingness exists. That this odyssey reached a stumbling block was not surprising. In all societies, there will be factions whose goals are at odds with the grand plan for collective harmony. The real strength of a country’s backbone lies in its ability to recognise disruptive forces and mitigate their negative effect.

In looking for motivation in what seemed very dark times in the most recent past, I listened out for a voice of reason, with a positive message for our dilemma. I didn’t find it among the plethora of political analysts and forecasters, but in fact in the heart of media – itself now under siege from many quarters that would for particular reasons want to cause harm to journalists.

On May 14, Branko Brkic, founder, publisher and editor of The Daily Maverick, one of South Africa’s most reliable news and opinion platforms, wrote that the internal political divisions may soon slip into our daily lives and into the streets. He said South Africa was now a brutally divided country and its ruling party even more so and there would be no stability until this struggle had a measurable, clear outcome.

“If we are to stand a chance of making it to the other side, we must redefine the very idea of responsible citizenry and our duties to prevent another lost decade, or even a lost generation,” he wrote.

His words struck a chord. He was saying that the fate of South Africa lies in the hands of its citizenry and not in political figures. The unity of the country lies in alliances forged with mutual understanding between thoughtful individuals – in homes and business, on the streets and in the communities, not in fiery political rhetoric and rallies that stir up people’s negative responses.

I think he’s right. But still we wait.

John

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SILVER LINING?

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SILVER LINING?

The term ‘life can turn on a tickey’ was never more appropriate, as South Africans, in a matter of a week, saw what they believed was a bit of a silver lining in the dark economic clouds, become a load-shedding nightmare that once again threatens to plunge us into darkness.

In his State of the Nation address, on February 7, President Ramaphosa sketched some very positive prospects for South Africa, with a fresh look and apparently workable plans for implementing the obvious remedies towards economic improvement. Most optimists believed that the speech contained more than empty promises.

But when, within days, the core of the country’s growth potential – the vital power grid on which every enterprise depends – reached near collapse, well, the silver lining and the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly lost their lustre.

John Matthews, President, Master Builders South Africa

It wasn’t a bad plan that the President presented so we could not be blamed for feeling a bit more cheerful – I had actually penned a pretty positive Comment for this month’s SA Builder. But even while he was making plans to cut Eskom up into manageable bits, the President was apparently unaware of exactly what a mess the utility was in – and how close it was to the brink of disaster. ‘It came as a shock!’ he told bewildered South Africans.

When it comes to his basically 10-point economic rescue plan, if applied in full, or even in achievable stages, it addresses each of the core concerns of all thinking South Africans. Changes to each of the issues he prioritised can only mean improvements in the lives and the general outlook of South Africans – aside from the way the international community will view this country.

But we must keep in mind that this is an election year, and there are promises aplenty at a time like this. And not knowing your power utility is broken makes the President’s promises a little suspect.

So we, as corporate and private citizens of South Africa, have a massive and now increasing responsibility to monitor the progress of each of the reforms that he promised, and to keep him and his government accountable and responsible.

Keep an eye on government’s progress on the transformation of his headliners: Employment, Eskom, Education, Housing, Health Care, Gender-based violence, Substance abuse, Corruption, Freedoms and The Economy.

The reform of each of these issues is key to our progress and wellbeing as a national community.

So, to quote President Ramaphosa himself – watch this space.

 

John

ACCOUNTABILITY

ACCOUNTABILITY

It’s little wonder that South Africans are inclined to duck below the parapet as daily new disclosures of this corruption or that deception fly around the media doing untold harm to our country’s reputation. Seemingly without there being any real punishment for the perpetrators.

John Matthews, President, Master Builders South Africa

But suddenly, somewhere in this endless inventory of misery we hear of someone having to pay the big price for practicing to deceive. The irony is, of course that former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene had been one of the good guys. But, after shocking the nation with a disclosure of meetings with the Guptas, he lost his job and apparently his political career.

For most South Africans, this was good news because for once someone was going to pay the price, and bad news, because in reality, a man who had previously turned down a R600 million bribe, should perhaps have been shown some leniency when he strayed. That’s a matter for discussion, but the Nene case awakened us to the almost non-existent concept of accountability on our political landscape.

We should be heartened by President Ramaphosa’s actions related to Nene, as it was clearly painful for him to lose one of his stalwarts. But if we are to believe in a South Africa capable of better governance, then we should be demanding a lot more of the same from our country’s leader.

And that is the further lesson for us all in our own daily lives and work. We are not dependent on political leadership to set our moral compass – in fact experience right now tells us that’s a remote possibility. As independent thinkers, and practitioners in an industry that has suffered badly from the fallout of misdeeds on a grand scale outside of our area of influence, we need to be even more morally accountable.

I would like us to end this tumultuous year on a note of regeneration and hope based on reasonable prospects of improved trading conditions in South Africa, backed by our own hard work to keep up the pressure for honesty and accountability. I wish President Ramaphosa the greatest success in the implementation of the investment strategy and the conversion of financial pledges into reality.

We are still only seeing a glimmer of the light we need to put South Africa back under the golden glow we enjoyed briefly after 1994. That glow may well have been based on illusion – but let’s now consolidate the good and embrace the necessary measures to ensure equality of opportunity for our entire nation. That’s the way forward.

Now, at the threshold of the holidays, thank you, all my colleagues, fellow-members and executive of MBSA for putting your confidence in me during 2018. I will do all in my power for the rest of my tenure as your President and onward, to further our cause and serve the association. I hope the coming Season proves to be what we all hope for – a time of peace, and family connections. Next year is probably going to be similar to 2018, but there’s no harm in making a few attainable resolutions that stand half a chance of lasting.

My very best wishes to you all.

John

 

South African Builder wishes all its readers a peaceful, safe and relaxing holiday season

CONTEMPLATING THE CLOUDY CRYSTAL BALL

CONTEMPLATING THE CLOUDY CRYSTAL BALL

My natural optimism may not have been immediately evident as we started our blockbuster 113th Master Builders South Africa (MBSA) Congress in Port Elizabeth, but it’s my belief that there is a distinct difference between gloomy pessimism, and a good hard airing of the facts, however unpalatable, with the object of finding solutions.

John Matthews, President, Master Builders South Africa

It was in the latter mode that we found ourselves as we gathered at the Boardwalk Convention Centre to examine an industry that faces some of its hardest times ever, and ways to do something about it.

Several of the problems have their roots in history, like the lack of skilled labour and supervision, and others have resulted from additional costs to the industry for compliance, health and safety measures in the face of shrinking margins. And more immediately, there is the regular news of businesses in trouble as a result of non-payment.

We cannot ignore the R6.6 billion currently owed by clients, both private and public”

The announcement by President Ramaphosa of an allocation of funds for government projects is, on the one hand, encouraging, but means nothing if there is a lack of will to execute. And for government to be among the biggest debtors to the industry makes his pronouncement somewhat of a hollow promise.

What did emerge from all of this, is that the building industry is not surprisingly, too dependent on government for its work. Which is probably a by-product of there being a distinct lack of business confidence among players in the private sector right now. As a result of political chicanery.

This is a fact of life for the time being, and, without any big changes (fast), to a time when infrastructure spending eventually resumes in earnest, the builders who survive will be leaner, and skills will have to be sourced elsewhere than from our own workforce.

The really big changes that will bring about renewed health in the building industry may not be short-term, but they are nevertheless essential – the primary one being to start generating a passion for construction as a career of first choice. And then training and developing those who choose the industry, from a very young age – as early as primary school level.

And when it comes to training and its application we have to realise that the existing training opportunities have to be properly organized and integrated to reflect a truly cohesive approach.

I also advocate a healthy streak of cynicism that includes our view of the escalating role of the Chinese in our economy. They will not be here to develop local skills and may instead, insist on importing skilled labour at lower cost, thus creating more debt.

And if we as an industry, as a country, have any hope of moving forward, we have to pay more than lip-service to the eradication of fraud and corruption. We’re in this state we’re in because of it.

Ever-optimistic, I look forward to a day, during my tenure as President of the MBSA, if I were to be so fortunate, when I am able to write this Comment to report a month at the very least, when South Africans could look back on real economic progress and forward to a brighter future. But as we look back on our 113th MBSA Congress, the South African Building Industry remains in undeniably turbulent times where uncertainty is about the only conclusion we can reach right now.

However, we don’t – as hardy South African survivors of the slings and arrows of scandal and skulduggery – let a little thing like adversity get us down. We look for where the upside might, possibly, emerge on the wide horizons of the country we all love so fiercely.

Perhaps it’s in the visit of the British Prime Minister, Mrs May who is prepared to dance, albeit badly, to our tune – offering the hand of renewed friendship and possibly financial gain. Or, we could take heart in the eventual explanation by our President of what the government really means by expropriation without compensation.

We could also hope that China’s proposed escalation of direct investment in South Africa might do more good than harm. We are already the second largest recipient of Chinese FDI in sub-Saharan Africa and the relationship has the virtue of longevity with our biggest trading partner.

With a reasonable assurance that increased investment will nowadays make its way into the SA economy and boost our collective business, we could feel a glimmer of hope.

Notwithstanding the odd possibility of another hidden agenda.

John

INTERESTING TIMES

INTERESTING TIMES

August started out with Zimbabweans demonstrating in the streets of Harare because they reckoned the results of their general election had been rigged. There were threats of making the country ungovernable. South Africa kicked off Women’s Month with mass marches intended to shut down the economy – even if just for a day. Women have had enough of gender-based violence and Zimbabweans have had enough of political chicanery. But the protests weren’t having much success.

John Matthews, President – Master Builders South Africa

Then there’s the business breakfast covered in this month’s SA Builder, which tried to make sense of what was going on in the South African economy. With limited results, because the breakfast took place and the analyst made his pronouncements before Cyril Ramaphosa announced his late-night confirmation that the SA Constitution would be amended to allow land expropriation without compensation. This even before all the hearings were complete! The rand went pear-shaped again.

The prospects for settlement in Zimbabwe look bleak, and we could easily, here down south, view what’s happening there as a prototype for things to come. But we’re different, we pull the rabbit out of the hat at the last minute and breathe a sigh of relief – don’t we.

So we’ve established that making predictions has become a tricky business, because in the time it takes to bring this magazine to its readers, just too many things could change. Instead, we will concentrate on where we can make a difference in the short term.

It’s Women’s month. An interesting phenomenon, because we actually believe every month belongs to women. But, if it’s a time to take stock of a woman’s role in all quarters of our humanity, then perhaps we should look at where women may be drawing the short straw in terms of jobs, security, income and influence.

If one checks the archives, it’s been a long time since women’s ostensibly minor role status in the construction industry, for instance, has been examined in any depth in the media, which could mean that it’s just one of those inconvenient truths that’s swept under the rug. Or, perhaps everyone thinks things are ok, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Women have absolutely continued to take their place in the professional strata of the industry in increasing numbers, with engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and other executive leaders being drawn from the ranks of women who have become qualified for those jobs, no question. But who can honestly say that women are actively encouraged to enter the building industry? Are women appointed to jobs in construction largely with gender equity in mind, or is there a strong feeling that their presence improves the quality of the industry?

It’s probably a very individual thing, and attitudes will differ. The women we know in the building industry do a very good job, they are viewed as equal players by their male counterparts and the women in turn, judge their colleagues by their capability rather than their gender. So, the playing field could be viewed as being level from our perspective.

But it’s not like that everywhere, and a few years ago women interviewed by a national news platform still felt that there was an inequity, grounded in the prevailing disparity in numbers between men and women employed in the building industry.

Among those who had successfully integrated into the industry, one woman said that she nevertheless felt she was being second-guessed by her male colleagues although she was equally qualified. At the time the story was published, women were urged to state their view and stand their ground. Some said they did, and were successful.

But significantly, some of the women interviewed brought up the issue of whether the predominantly masculine tone of the industry meant that women had to abandon their femininity to succeed.

This issue has been endlessly debated without much resolution, and as long as the players in an industry feel that their case has to be argued from a gender point of view, the lines will remain drawn.

We believe that aptitude, qualifications, skill, and dedication are the only criteria for a successful career in the building industry and there’s simply no place for professional gender inequity – here, or anywhere else.

John

Could discontent’s winter get any colder?

Could discontent’s winter get any colder?

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.

John Matthews, President – Master Builders South Africa

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.

John