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.


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