They fought a battle that needed to be fought, but the war for a good standard of living persists

Koma M. Senyolo Bigen Group, Structural Engineer

Apart from the popular notion that the rats from there are extremely huge, there are two facts that every South African need to know about Alexandra township: one, it is amongst the most impoverished urban areas in the country and two, its neighbour is the wealthiest square mile in Africa. I am from Alexandra.

I have spent pretty much the entirety of my youth in this glaringly contrasting environment – and I have been told time and again that the not-so-fine-line between destitution and affluence – between Alexandra and Sandton – is education. There is perhaps no group of people who appreciated this idea more than the courageous youth of 1976, who put their lives on the line to gain access to this privilege that so many of our people still struggle to gain access to, to this very day, 45 years later.

A wall that separates the South African child from good, quality education (read ‘life’) still exists. The wall has morphed from a morally bankrupt educational system to insanely inequitable financial expectations that are impossible to meet for the majority of South Africans. The youth of 1976 bravely fought a battle that needed to be fought at the time, but the war for a good standard of living persists and has by no means reached its end – it has merely transformed, albeit this time we are in a much more favourable position. It is up to today’s youth to further the cause of the attainment of good, quality life for the youth of tomorrow, just as the youth of yesterday furthered the cause for the youth of today. There is no better profession to aid with the mission of improving the quality of people’s lives than the engineering profession. How? Let us play ‘find the engineering professional’.

In one form or the other, the typical day of a fortunate individual looks as follows: One wakes up in the morning to the intrusive sound of their (hopefully) fully charged cell phone alarm. After snoozing it about 7 times (okay, 8), they finally manage to slowly escape the irresistibly comfortable clutches of their bed in a well-insulated bedroom and head over to the bathroom to run a bath, filling it up with clean, hot water. They clean up, get dressed and tidy up, opening up the relevant curtains and windows to let some fresh air and light in to welcome the great day ahead of them (clearly not a Monday morning).

They prepare a quick breakfast meal, using a combination of ingredients preserved in the fridge and stored in cabinets supported on nicely tiled walls. Upon eating, they very quickly wash what needs to be washed in the sink with warm water before heading out to the driveway to warm the car up in preparation for the road ahead. A couple of minutes later, after leaving the car idle, they reverse out of the nicely paved driveway into the tarred road leading to a premeditated destination.

However, on their way there, the light signalling an almost empty fuel tank lights up on the car’s dashboard, just as they were driving over that bridge that runs over the decommissioned railway line. Luckily the petrol station is just around the corner, as shown by the road signage board next to that stop sign with a hand-drawn smiley face on it. Time to fill up; after driving in and out of the station, they can finally drive off to their airconditioned office block to officially kick off the work morning.

Very few things in life are as fulfilling as knowing that this smooth sailing morning would not have been possible for millions of individuals around the country had it not been for the thought, time, energy and effort spent on engineering the countless systems that have been put in place by engineering professionals; from the charged phone to the clean, running hot water, to the insulated home, to the tiled walls, to the idling car, the paved roadway, the tarred road, the bridge, the road signage to the air conditioning in the office, to mention but a few.

Being a young engineering professional means having the opportunity to contribute to bettering the lives of millions of people by providing such infrastructure that improves the quality of people’s lives. Not only does this experience offer a rewarding sense of fulfilment, but the types of problems one experiences in this profession build one’s critical thinking capabilities to efficiently solve problems that require way more than just technical prowess. Spending every day of one’s working life solving all sorts of engineering problems tends to spill over to one’s personal life as finding means to apply one’s mind efficiently becomes a norm and a huge benefit in the long run. Difficulties that would have otherwise been seen as hindrances become exciting challenges, and finding solutions becomes a fun exercise.

The skills one attains as a young engineer enables one to be fluent relatively quickly in other areas as learning is a continual (life-long) process and therefore becomes ingrained in one’s habits – both inside and outside of the engineering profession.

The challenge rests with us as young engineering professional to use these skills to help spur our country on to better times. The road to a continually improving quality of life for all South Africans is still long, but through probity, purpose and various partnerships, the journey can be made. Needless to say, with efforts from those of the past, there are tarred roads connecting Alexandra to Sandton today.

Koma M. Senyolo

Bigen Group, Structural Engineer