The un­sung he­roes who built SA

New book gives engi­neers and builders their right­ful dues, writes MYRNA ROBINS

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PEOPLE -

JUST af­ter this fas­ci­nat­ing book ar­rived, the tragic in­ci­dent in­volv­ing the col­lapse of a tem­po­rary pedes­trian bridge in Sand­ton oc­curred, killing two and in­jur­ing oth­ers. The me­dia cov­er­age was ex­ten­sive, ac­com­pa­nied by crit­i­cism of the con­trac­tor and pro­nounce­ments on ac­count­abil­ity.

While we await the re­sults of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing we sel­dom see head­lines cel­e­brat­ing the suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of another ma­jor moun­tain pass, tun­nel, bridge, har­bour or dam in our vast coun­try – yet many of these projects are built with as­ton­ish­ing in­ge­nu­ity and few thank­fully re­sult in ma­jor tragedies caused by con­trac­tors, their work­ers or ma­te­ri­als.

Whether driv­ing through the Huguenot tun­nel – or tak­ing the old Du Toit­skloof pass in­stead – whizzing up the wide road that Sir Lowry’s Pass presents to­day these mon­u­ments to past and present engi­neers con­tinue to in­duce ad­mi­ra­tion.

And, as Man­glin Pil­lay, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the SA In­sti­tu­tion of Civil En­gi­neer­ing notes in the book’s fore­word, de­vel­op­ments that have im­proved the safety of road and rail trans­port, wa­ter sup­plies, san­i­ta­tion and ship­ping are sel­dom recog­nised, partly be­cause civil engi­neers are poor sto­ry­tellers. This ti­tle, at least, goes some way to rec­ti­fy­ing that anom­aly.

Tony Mur­ray is un­usual in that he is not only a prom­i­nent fig­ure in lo­cal civil en­gi­neer­ing cir­cles, but has been chron­i­cling the his­tory of his pro­fes­sion in this coun­try and – as proven by this ti­tle – presents the re­sults in an ap­peal­ing form that re­quires lit­tle sci­en­tific knowl­edge from the reader.

He of­fers no fewer than 33 sto­ries of struc­tures in our coun­try, listed chrono­log­i­cally. The his­toric cir­cum­stances pre­cede a pen por­trait of per­son­al­i­ties in­volved in de­ci­sions and ac­tions – usu­ally govern­ment of­fi­cials who ap­point a civil en­gi­neer to head the task force. The tri­als and tribu­la­tions of con­struc­tion fol­low and, if the orig­i­nal project can be vis­ited to­day, de­tails are given.

The orig­i­nal pass over the Hot­ten­tots Hol­land moun­tains, built be­tween 1828 and 1830, was named af­ter colo­nial gov­er­nor Sir Gal­braith Lowry Cole, who asked newly ap­pointed sur­veyor-gen­eral and civil en­gi­neer Ma­jor Charles Michell to design a route to en­able Over­berg farm­ers to take their pro­duce to the Cape mar­ket with­out us­ing the dreaded Gan­touw Kloof. The pass was widened to a four-lane high­way in 1984.

Michell was also re­spon­si­ble for build­ing the hard road across the Cape Flats, the Mon­tagu pass over the Outeni­quas and the one through Mostert’s Hoek to Ceres, which car­ries his name.

Another of Michell’s pet projects was to pro­vide light­houses along the coast­line to in­crease the safety of ship­ping, an area ne­glected by of­fi­cial­dom.

Even­tu­ally, funds were made avail­able for the build­ing of light­houses at Agul­has, Cape Point and Mouille Point.

The Agul­has light­house – which cel­e­brated its cen­te­nary in 1949 – has been saved from de­mo­li­tion more than once, and is to­day a na­tional mon­u­ment that at­tracts vis­i­tors to this south­ern­most point of the con­ti­nent. Other grip­ping sto­ries in­clude those of the Swart­berg Pass, the Vic­to­ria Falls bridge and the build­ing of the Ta­ble Bay Har­bour from start to the present V&A Wa­ter­front.

From the north, the build­ing of the Vaal Bar­rage and Kariba Dam are worth di­gest­ing, along with the Le­sotho High­lands Wa­ter Scheme.

Eclec­tic con­tent to suit ev­ery trav­eller is com­ple­mented by pho­to­graphs, some of which are his­toric gems.

This well-pro­duced soft­back de­serves a place on our book­shelves, prefer­ably along­side that equally en­joy­able ti­tle, The Ro­mance of Cape Moun­tain Passes, by Gra­ham Ross.

PIC­TURE: ROBIN CLARK

EN­GI­NEER­ING FEAT: Sir Lowry’s Pass was named af­ter colo­nial gov­er­nor Sir Gal­braith Lowry Cole, who who com­mis­sioned a route to en­able Over­berg farm­ers to take their pro­duce to the Cape Town mar­ket.

THUN­DER: The rail bridge di­vid­ing Zam­bia and Zim­babwe near Vic­to­ria Falls.

PET PROJECT: Green Point Light­house, Mouille Point.

Me­gas­truc­tures and Masterminds: Great feats of civil en­gi­neer­ing in South­ern Africa, by Tony Mur­ray (Tafel­berg).

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