Gugulethu Sidinile – making a difference

By Ntsako Khosa

Very few people are fortunate enough to find their way and follow it from an early age. Gugulethu Sidinile, urban development section manager at SMEC, is one of them. He talks to Civil Engineering Contractor about his career journey and what lies ahead. 

Gugulethu Sidinile making a difference feb2019Gugulethu Sidinile from SMEC.
Image credit: Ntsako Khosa

As a civil engineer from the University of Johannesburg, Sidinile shares how from an early age, he often was interested in the way things worked. “When I looked at a road, I would question why it is built in that way and why the choice of the black tar on top. I would wonder where the water would go after a rainfall and why catch pits were located in the areas where they are. What sealed my vision of becoming an engineer is when a close relative, Thamsanqa Skele, pursued the path of civil engineering. From seeing what he was doing, I knew that I would like to continue in the same vein,” he says.

Getting into the field fresh from varsity, he was excited about getting his hands dirty, moving from theory to practice. Today, with about nine years’ working experience, he has worked on a number of projects. Few remain memorable, as he says that each project he has worked on provided a lesson with challenges that were overcome. Some projects he mentions is the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) Gauteng Freeway Infrastructure Project (GFIP) on the N12 Freeway from the Jet Park on-ramp to the Tom Jones exit. “I started as a laboratory assistant, testing aspects like soil sample properties, cement properties, asphalt that came in, and so on. Then I moved to the role of technician, assisting the resident engineer in supervising and signing off works. The testing part of the project helped me to know all tests required in approving layers once I reached engineer level, like in the Diepsloot Roads Upgrade project,” he enlightens. The Diepsloot project included the upgrade of 27 gravel roads and he was involved from tendering to completion. “The pinnacle on this project was seeing the difference it made in people’s lives after completion,” he recalls.

You will be surprised what you can learn from a site labourer who doesn’t even have a matric certificate.

In 2015, he received his professional registration from the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). “Receiving it summed up many years of hard work. At last, I could take responsibility for the work I produced as a fully fledged professional,” he says. He is open to growth and is looking at other aspects that form part of his profession. He has a master’s in project management from the University of Pretoria.

Looking at the industry, he laments that practitioners do not own and protect the industry in the way that is seen in other industries. “We need to take a page from lawyers and doctors and find a way to safeguard the highly specialised work we do. If we do not, then things will carry on and get worse,” he advises. According to Sidinile, the past three years have been bleak for the industry. “The economic downturn has hit our industry hard. SMEC is surviving the times by continuing to deliver good quality work and by delivering projects in a smarter way. Things are steadily improving now, though. As we see more work being awarded, we hope that this continues, because if the engineering industry is ticking, this means that service delivery is taking place and the lives of people are improving.”

He believes that the change that technology brings gives engineers a more efficient way of delivering projects. “We have just embarked on an exciting journey as SMEC, where we have built virtual rooms. In these rooms, one can virtually enter a model and be in the world that has been designed by our team of designers. This is a visually powerful tool that can be used to show a client what the final product will look like. The technology is also useful for detailed inspections to ensure that the designs are correct. What could happen in the future is that a lot of design operations may be automated, but I think the human touch will always be required in the work that we do.”

To young and upcoming engineers, he advises that they should also discover their ‘why’ and use that to fuel their passion. “Welcome to the real world of civil engineering — you know nothing. You will be surprised what you can learn from a site labourer who doesn’t even have a matric certificate. So be willing to learn. Once you start working, quickly find out what your ‘why’ is: Why do you do what you do? This ‘why’ is different for most professionals. With my work being based mostly in the municipal space, my ‘why’ is the difference I know that my work makes to civil society at large. Find out what yours is, because that is what will drive you in the occasional hard times you will face in your career.”


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