SANRAL’s Skhumbuzo Macozoma: directed focus

Those fortunate enough to find their passion or know what they want at a young age, are at an advantage. Skhumbuzo Macozoma, CEO of the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL), explains to Civil Engineering Contractor (CEC) senior writer Ntsako Khosa how he used directed focus to carve out his career.

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SANRAL’s goal is to avoid these.. Photo by Hypertext.

CEC: Describe your career journey and how you ended up at SANRAL?

Skhumbuzo Macozoma: I spent 10 years at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the Building and Construction division where I honed my research skills. I did a lot of work in a whole array of civil engineering starting with water and sanitation, moving into waste management, sustainable construction, demolition waste management and transportation. I also worked on energy and water infrastructure. In hindsight, I preferred transport and decided to focus on that.

I moved to the Department of Transport, spending eight years there working closely with counterparts developing roads policy, roads strategy, co-ordinating and overseeing the work of provinces and municipalities. I was part of the SANRAL board for two terms, then moved to the organising committee of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. My mandate was to assist the country to implement a transport plan, successfully deliver the World Cup and also co-ordinate other roads authorities in terms of infrastructure they needed to develop in preparation for the World Cup. I was also responsible for logistics, accommodation and hospitality.

It was a mammoth task: we had a budget of around half a billion rands on which we were able to save R100-million. From there I moved into ICT (information and communications technology) as executive for strategy at Sizwe IT Group. I needed a change from roads, infrastructure and football. It turned out to be a good move considering the current convergence between engineering and ICT.

Thereafter, I was appointed CEO of the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), responsible for 10 000km of roads in Johannesburg. That was a task and a half. Johannesburg had suffered significant under-investment in infrastructure and a lot of its road network was falling apart. The budget was meagre and the agency had over-expanded and was technically insolvent. By the time I left, the budget was significant and it experienced a clean audit for the first time.

Part of the success in my tenure there included:

  • Developing a clear road surfacing programme
  • Clarifying the road rehabilitation programme
  • Understanding the challenge with bridge infrastructure in the city that needed to be improved
  • Writing a clear asset management strategy
  • Understanding the condition of road infrastructure in Johannesburg
  • Strengthening the partnership with SANRAL for the City to work with SANRAL and benefit from the SANRAL infrastructure. We asked SANRAL to help with road condition surveys; subscribed to their integrated transport infrastructure system so that when we did our surveys, we were able to upload info into the system and download it for better planning
  • Developing a 10-year road plan for the city

I was then appointed CEO of Electronic Toll Concessions (ETC), an agency that runs the e-toll system, at which point I was appointed to succeed former CEO, Nazir Alli, after 18 years at the helm. This is now my third year.

CEC: You seem like a guy who likes to clean up a mess. Why is that?

SK: In contrast, I always say I would like to walk into an organisation that has no problems so I can do what I do best, which is helping organisations ‘transcend’. Part of the reason I was not bogged down in construction sites was because early in my career I saw my role in executive management driving strategy. I’m a strategy expert: I’ve developed strategy everywhere I’ve been and have honed that skill over time.

For instance, our award-winning Horizon 2030 was done internally, we didn’t employ anyone from outside to assist. SANRAL was awarded the most visionary client by Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) in 2018. The clarity of vision has been seen by industry. We did more than 40 national consultations for both Horizon 2030 and the transformation policy. There was not one negative comment on Horizon 2030, just support. We did get a lot of feedback on transformation policy, owing to its controversial set-up. However, we are trying to rattle an industry that has resisted change for many years, and it makes people uncomfortable.

CEC: Did you evolve into a strategic role or did you study for it?

SK: It was a clear and strategic decision I took early in my career. When I finished my undergraduate degree as a civil engineer, I went to the CSIR because they had sponsored me and I did the mandatory five years. As I did so, I realised that it didn’t have a plan as an engineer, once I asked for assistance with training and to gain experience and exposure. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck on site with a hard hat and boots. I decided executive management is what I want to do and focus on strategy.

From then on the development of my career was structured, and I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve and that’s the journey I’ve travelled. I made it a point to understand financial management, strategy, auditing, the legal fraternity, contract management, people management and so on. I’ve made highly structured progress: I’ve served in boards early on; I got my first degree in 1997 and the first board I sat on was in 2001. I’ve been on boards ever since which has helped me gain a bird’s eye view of the stewardship of companies, the importance of governance and how they come together.

I completed a fellowship in 2001 that was awarded by the International Council for Building and Construction (CIB) located in France, which I could do anywhere in the world. I chose the University of Florida where I was following a certain professor and conducted my research in sustainable construction, construction and demolition waste management. It put me in contact with people globally who were leading that particular research area. Those were the origins of my Master’s degree, which I then came back and wrote with Wits University.

CEC: What is the most memorable project of your career?

SK: When I was in the KZN department of transport in the Qhudeni area of Nqutu, we developed, in partnership with the provincial roads department, a 9km stretch of road. When we first drove this route it took close to two hours, the surface was terrible. Within the community, there was a dilapidated school where kids were being taught under very difficult conditions, the school badly needed repairs that couldn’t be done because trucks couldn’t reach the school. People also had serious struggles to access their homes and amenities like clinics. When the project was complete, you could drive the distance in less than 10 minutes. I will always remember that project for the meaningful difference it made in the lives of local people.

Recently we opened the Gateway in the Umhlanga area. It is a majestic, four-level interchange project, with amazing routing and isolation of traffic to promote and facilitate rapid movement in a node in KwaZulu-Natal that is growing at a fast pace.

The N2 Wild Coast is the last remaining missing link in our key corridors in the country. Completing that section is going to open up the corridor of the N2 from Ermelo, Mpumalanga all the way to Cape Town. Many people currently avoid that route because of the Eastern Cape’s steep inclines and rough terrain. The new corridor has a much flatter alignment and, being straighter, will cut more than 100km from the trip. It will create trade opportunities between the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

CEC: How has the industry evolved since you entered it?

SK: South Africa has always played along with the big boys. The infrastructure we deliver shows that we’ve got excellent engineering capability. We deliver infrastructure that is comparable to any in the world. The e-toll scheme we’ve delivered, for example, is an amazing piece of infrastructure the potential of which we haven’t even tapped. With e-tolls we can solve many problems – we can supply information to police and SARS, for example. About 2.5 million vehicles go through our highways every month providing data we could offer to other authorities. The resulting large amounts of data can be used for planning purposes, for advanced traffic management and be put to good use to improve the work of civil engineering.

Where we’ve experienced challenges is in transforming the industry, as well as welcoming young engineers to take over from the older generation of traditionally white engineers, who are about to retire. There’s a flood of young engineers who need to be mentored and routed through the hoops to become professional engineers. Between these two demographics there’s a big gap that’s being filled by foreign multinationals, which taken have over local consulting firms. Local industry capability to head up a project is hard to find. Many large South African construction companies are struggling or in liquidation in the current economic environment as our industry is consequently being decimated. When the cycle turns, there is a risk we may not have construction capability and multinationals will have to step in. We’re working with the industry to see how it can be rescued.

On the other hand, black players are complaining they don’t have access to work. Sadly, there’s a proliferation of grade 1s and 2s, which isn’t helpful because at grade 8 and 9 you have a small number. Emerging small businesses are not sustainable on their own to tender for big jobs: they need to come together.

CEC: What is your message to new civil engineering graduates?

SK: It’s about motivating and inspiring young ones coming up, the ability to have bravery to chase objectives that they might otherwise run from, but which helps you to aim higher. My message is: be clear about where you want to end up; be clear about your journey and chase it and hound people and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The most important thing is share what you know, because if you share people get comfortable with you and reciprocate. 

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