Barking at the wrong threat

There is negative shade flying all over about a recent N$530 tender bid won by a Chinese company to construct the road from Tses to Gochas. People are barking at the wrong threat. Rather, we need to sound the alarm because Namibia still does not possess the technical expertise to be substantive practical, logistical and development partner on major infrastructure projects in our own country. That is a real threat to our sovereignty and we are quiet.

We have been inviting the world in to build things for us before independence and after. We happily remain ignorant about how to do such major things for ourselves. Until when are we going to focus the country’s education and training priorities on local technical skills development? This doesn’t mean sending young people to Mickey Mouse programs on a high school level in some eastern European country. It means sending them to serious, world-class degree programs paid by the government. Previously disadvantaged Namibians must become competitive technical infrastructure design, construction and usage.

People are doing backflips to criticize the government over ‘local’ cash supposedly flowing out of Namibia and to Chinese companies. They claim that “Namibians can do that work”. Stand down. Namibians cannot do that work. In any event, the money being used for the current road construction project on the Tses road came from KfW in Germany. There are international tender bidding rules to follow if you want to use their money.

No Namibian company that can compete with the international infrastructure project bidders. We have not focused our education and training on local technical skills development. We are in no position to demand the participation of our people in command and control roles.

The black male mouthpieces for these foreign projects will always reflect the perspective of the development partner. They will reiterate that agreements for work allocations to local SMEs are a requirement in the contract. But, they will not offer any specifics on the skills transfer that has been promised or what penalties will be extracted if it falls apart. These infrastructure mega-projects will not include a relevant number of Namibian apprentice engineers, lawyers, construction supervisors and architects.

Namibian SMEs will be hired to provide manual labour, food, security services, furniture, maintenance, ground transportation (i.e., drivers) and build fences. Namibians employed in those capacities will earn much-needed revenue, at least temporarily.

The Chinese are paying for the rebuilding of HK International Airport. That government gave Namibia a list of Chinese companies to choose which one will do the work. Those providing the money call the shots. And, Namibians cannot do that work. To bark to the Chinese about SME inclusion or training our apprentice engineers, is like barking outside a soundproof house.

We had the idea correct when we formed SOEs for roads construction. We got it wrong, by trying too soon to be an international roads company. We did not emphasize the expert training of huge amounts of young people in the technical skills needed to run that high level of work.

By now, we should have a small army of talented, skilled roads engineers (with worldwide experience). We should have the technicians to build any major infrastructure needed in Namibia. That team could already be bidding for work in other people’s countries.

Segments of society should not become too haughty about this reality of a Namibia without the skills in this area. Whites who benefited from South Africa in the previous dispensation think that only white South African companies can do these major projects ‘right.’

Those who support Germany and earn income/benefits from their presence believe that only if Germans are in charge can things be done ‘right.’

There are those who are convinced that only French, Italian, UK or USA companies can do things ‘right.’

The Chinese are laughing at them. They are the players on the scene not just in Namibia, but in all Africa. While everyone was arguing about who would drive the car; the Chinese climbed in a drove off with the car.

Namibia cannot stop the money people from deciding how projects will run. Soon, they will be telling us which projects we need. But, it is not too late to get in front of this problem.

We must mobilize every talented Namibian with demonstrated capacity in any of the technical skills required to build major infrastructure. Then, we must invest serious cash to educate them abroad (not in China). They must be incentivized to bring their skills home to Namibia. They can be the core decision-makers for mega-infrastructure projects in the future.

In seven years we can try to take control of our building industry and insert of our Namibian technical team. In five more years, development partners will be equal partners in any infrastructure job in Namibia.

Let us bark for future possibilities.

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