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Riding the boom

Markets - With a World Cup, a booming construction economy and a social revolution, South Africa is building itself into the first world. Bernadette Redfern reports.

On 15 May 2004 the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down to the South African construction industry when the nation beat off Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia to win the right to stage the 2010 World Cup.

Millions of South Africans are putting their faith in engineers to deliver the much needed infrastructure for the event, which is set to cost the government approximately R100bn (£7.1bn) over the next three years.

Not only does the country need to provide 10 new or refurbished stadia (see box).

Roads, railways and airports all have to be upgraded to cope with the massive influx of football fans expected to saturate the nation in the summer of 2010.

And compounding the problem is a predicted energy shortage by 2010. South Africa has rested on its laurels since the 1980s when it had an oversupply of power. But demand has now caught up and new generating facilities are not coming on line quick enough, explains Arup Major Projects operations director Werner van Straaten.

Arup Major Projects has been in South Africa for 14 months after realising the enormous scale of work about to be undertaken. It has joined Arup South Africa, which has 50 years experience in the region.

'Projects in excess of £21bn have been announced in South Africa in the infrastructure, transport and energy sectors.

These trends are among the drivers the led us to expand the Arup Major Projects Group into Africa, ' he says.

If 2010 is crunch time, Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo airport is going to feel it most.

This hub saw 16M passengers pass through it in 2005. It must remain open to serve the nation's first city during work to increase its annual capacity to 21M passengers by 2010.

'The airport's capacity is being increased by joining up the international and domestic terminals, effectively bridging the gap between the two, ' says Van Straaten.

If that is a major engineering challenge, the biggest talking point among South African engineers at the moment is the 80km Gautrain project.

The high speed rail link will connect Johannesburg airport to the city centre and continue north to Pretoria.

The project must be completed by the World Cup or the city will grind to a halt as football fans pour out of the airport and onto the already congested roads.

WSP is one of the largest consultants in the region and has picked up a contract for mechanical and electrical services provision on the Gautrain project.

Its primary objective is to relieve traffic on the congested N1 road corridor, which is used by 157,000 cars every day. The line's first major test will be the World Cup. Although Bombela, a consortium of Bouygues, Bombardier, Murray & Roberts and Strategic Partnership Group, is confident that the line will be ready, speculation is rife that delays are already mounting.

Construction only began in September.

Another consultant on the project says: 'It is a really paper intensive job. Communication is poor and decision making takes a very long time.' Slow decision making, particularly in government, is a common complaint and one of the many reasons that cynics say South Africa is not up to the job of hosting a World Cup.

Abolition of apartheid saw many government positions lled by unqualied local staff.

Companies are also compelled to set targets for the number of employees taken from ethnic groups which had suffered under apartheid and are classed as 'previously disadvantaged groups' (see box).

'It is going to take time to right itself. As more black people come through universities and gain experience, the workforce will become more competent, but that is going to take time, maybe 20 years, ' says one senior engineer.

Working with such time critical projects and with insufcient resources has left the engineering profession struggling to cope.

WSP structural engineer Tinus Nel explains: 'The deadlines are tough so we don't have much time for training and we can't afford to make mistakes. So there is lots of double checking of work. Work is extremely pressurised and many people are not used to these deadlines. You need to do a design almost in your head, so you really need to have a feel for your eld and be able to think on your feet.

'Essentially it means that quality suffers and you get a lot of small mistakes that creep up on site. You might see a column on the wrong base. Once you get on site you have to check that what you designed is what is being built. Mistakes always get picked up although they can be picked up late.' The plus side is that engineers are exposed to the whole spectrum of project work and responsibility comes early to those good enough to take it.

'It is a very exciting time for engineers in all disciplines. The increase in volume of work has led to a commensurate increase in demand for engineering skills and the competition for limited resources has had a positive impact on remuneration levels, ' says van Straaten.

So do engineers think that the World Cup infrastructure will get built on time? 'My personal view is that there is no way the government will miss the 2010 deadlines, even if it means the budgets double, ' one senior source working on the stadium projects tells NCE.

'Whatever money is required the government will make it available. There is no way that the government will say that the infrastructure is not ready. It is not good project management but money won't be an issue.'

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