Freedom Day is an annual celebration of the first non-racial democratic elections of South Africa that took place in 1994. The day hallmarks peace, unity, the preservation, and the restoration of all human dignity taking into consideration South Africa’s cultural diversity.

Since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 who put the indigenous people of South Africa under white control and domination. Engineering being the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man was established as part of a colonial project. The engineers built the harbors and the roads along which the occupying forces advanced, and laid the tracks of the railways that enabled the metropoles to enlarge their wealth by extracting the raw materials of colonized countries.

The profession’s history is of the roads, mountain passes and railways, dams, power stations and transmission lines that enabled settlement and made mining possible. Even water and sanitation were provided mainly for the colonizers, leaving a legacy of separate standards for white and black, and rural and urban people. The first civil engineering contract in South Africa was for a canal in Cape Town to supply fresh water to passing ships of the Dutch East India Company, a company established for a purpose of trade, exploration, and colonization throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Colonialism was thus not merely about economic infrastructure and colonial policy but had direct impacts on colonized people.

Higher education in South Africa under apartheid was skewed in ways designed to entrench the power and privilege of the ruling white minority. The institutions that were established at that time of the century were incorporated into a system, which was subsequently shaped, enlarged, and fragmented to serve the goals and strategies of successive apartheid governments. This apartheid-era legacy is one of the enormous inequalities reflected in landscapes of separate, ethnically determined social worlds filled with despair for non-White South Africans. Engineering was undoubtedly colored by colonial objectives and attitudes that determined who came into the profession and what they could do; and equally important, who was excluded, with what consequences. Its purpose was, to a greater or lesser extent, to advance the colonial mission. In the post-apartheid era, planners now have the task of undoing the many legacies created by the racially-based system.

In the 27 years post-apartheid, the wounds that were inflicted by apartheid are still raw. South Africa faces challenges in the engineering sector that need to be addressed through the process of decolonization of the industry. Part of these challenges is evident through the “Fees Must Fall” movements that have heightened the call for decolonizing the higher education sector. Some of these are seen from the water crisis in Cape Town whose origin and characterization are suggested to be linked to the continued influence of European approaches that are inappropriate to African conditions.

The discussion on how to decolonize the education system comes to the question “how does the decolonization process take place?” With engineering being at the heart of national development, transformation, and economic emancipation, South Africa with a historical tradition of excellence in engineering education, the emphasis on supporting educationally disadvantaged learners has been a notable action. This has, however not been able to fully remedy the challenges that are being faced by previously disadvantaged students. The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) as a statutory body for the engineering profession in the country also strives to maintain the quality required by South African professional bodies in addressing problems such as equality of access and success for black African students, inclusion, registration, studying cost and academically eligible student dropouts.

The measures that were put in place to decolonize higher education and engineering began in the early 1980s through:

  1. Equal education for all

Although the Ministry of Education began to relax the legislation prohibiting black students from attending historic white universities in the 1980s, universities like University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of Witwatersrand (Wits) had positioned themselves against the apartheid government’s policies of separate education since the 1950s.

In April 1994 when the first democratic elections took place in South Africa and the ANC won the majority of votes based on their Freedom Charter (ANC 1955). Nelson Mandela was elected as the first president of the ‘new’ inclusive South Africa. One of the slogans used in the 1994 elections was ‘Education for All’, which drew on the following statement in the Charter:

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!… Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; higher education and technical training shall be opened to all through state allowances and scholarships awarded based on merit.”

The intake of black students to the historically English-medium universities increased substantially after 1994, those universities designated as Afrikaans-medium under apartheid have largely remained white.

2. Academic Development

During this time when the ban against blacks attending historically English-medium universities, the initiatives to provide academic support for black students coming from poorly resourced schools and low-income families arose at UCT and Wits under the banner of ‘academic development’. This was a holistic curriculum approach that aimed at extending existing qualifications by a year to build on appropriate ‘foundational’ material.

The development of these programs in engineering was well supported by ‘big business’ in South Africa. The Anglo American Corporation, in particular a major stakeholder in the De Beers diamond mining company that was started by Cecil John Rhodes in 1888, supported the development of the extended curriculum programs at UCT, Wits and the University of Natal in Durban. Anglo American worked with academics at these institutions to develop appropriate foundational courses, donated millions of Rands in scholarships, provided bursaries for black students and contributed financial resources to identify the most talented students for these programs.

The most successful of these is the Academic Support Program for Engineering in Cape Town (ASPECT), which was started in 1988 and is still an integral part of engineering education within UCT. The ASPECT program has evolved over the years and today aims to extend the first two years of an accredited BSc (Eng.) degree into three years by focusing attention on maths, physics and communication skills in the first year. The duration of this alternative undergraduate degree is thus a minimum of five years.

3. The National Plan

In 2001, the South African Department of Education decided to take a stronger hand in matters and unveiled the National Plan to restructure higher education to deal with ‘the racial fragmentation of the system’. This involved the regrouping of 36 universities and technikons into 23 higher education institutions. In the process, the technikons were renamed ‘universities of technology’ and in the cases where traditional universities were merged with technikons, they formed “comprehensive universities”. The National Plan also made provision for the introduction of a Bachelor of Technology (BTech) qualification. This entails a year of academic work beyond the national diploma and such graduates are designated “engineering technologists”. Along with the “engineers” and the “engineering technician”, this is the third and final category of engineering qualifiers in South African higher education whose members, after graduation, are eligible to be registered with the professional body ECSA.

4. Qualification variety and compatibility

Because a BTech is more pragmatically oriented than a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B. Sc. Eng.) or Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.) due to the experiential training component in the national diploma (NDip) qualification. The BTech qualification does not normally allow entry into a Master of Science (MSc) degree (+6) offered by the universities and this, in turn, has implications for entry into doctorate (Ph.D.) programs. Although rated as a (+4) qualification such as a B.Sc.Eng / B.Eng. students graduating with a BTech from a University of Technology may gain access to an MTech and then a DTech program, both of which also have a more practical emphasis than do their university counterparts, the MSc Eng. and Ph.D.

At present most of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment’s (FEBE’s) National Diploma and BTech programmes are being gradually phased out. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Council of Higher Education’s (CHE) new Higher Education Qualification Sub-Framework (HEQSF) and Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) has rolled out its accredited three year Bachelor of Engineering Technology (BEngTech) and new Bachelors qualifications. This means that a student at a University of Technology can now progress from a national diploma (NDip) to an undergraduate advanced diploma (UGAD), a postgraduate diploma (PG Dip) and a Master of Science (MSc) before studying for their doctorate (Ph.D.).

The restructuring of higher education in South Africa has done little to change the pecking order as the more traditional universities remain more prestigious than universities of technology. There have been numerous attempts to build bridges between the two types of programs but these have not been successful.

There is still more that higher education needs to do to create equality and equity for previously disadvantaged black students and more attention to be paid to barriers that black students face before they step foot on campus. We know that higher education can be a means to lessen the root of all equity gaps but for black students simply accessing higher education remains difficult and recognizing the flawed foundation of the previous government and rebuilding a new durable one continues to be the goal for indigenous South Africans.

The South African society will not be well served if it simply ignores the challenges being faced by previously disadvantaged students, it should thus continue to correctly be committed to transforming the demographics of its institutions. This transformation or decolonization is not achieved merely by changing demographics but rather to ensure substantive participation by black professionals as well. Continued introspection is needed, to acknowledge and address problematic history and legacy. Priority must be given to the new forces that are shaping the country.

We can thus be hopeful that the profession is changing radically, with a growing cadre of young black participants, including women. Future Engineers as well as present engineers should continue to be assertive in promoting the vital role that technical professionals must play if South African is to move towards the vision of a developmental state. It must be notable that as young black Engineers our dreams and goals should be recognized and trusted as derived from our embeddedness in our societies and the hopes to make improvements and developments.

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