Onke Ngacu, a Technologist at Engineering & Architecture company GIBB, has been appointed Chairperson of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering for the Amathole (East London) region – the first black woman to hold the position.
Ngacu, who works in GIBB’s Water sector at the East London office, said she was honoured to be given the responsibility, but also aware that there was much work to do. Ngacu has committed herself to upholding the SAICE mission of advancing professional knowledge and improving the practice of civil engineering. The organisation does this by holding regular talks, facilitating training and skills upgrades for its 315 local members and through events for school learners to encourage them to study engineering.
Of the engineering industry as a whole, Ngacu said there was still a need to change the legacy culture so that the field becomes more accepting of women in a cultural and a practical sense. “It is exhausting for women to have to constantly prove themselves,” she said.
She said another industry challenge was a lack of structures to absorb new engineering graduates into the workforce. “We need to be more open to employing black diploma and B.Tech graduates, and to make sure they have clear career paths through to eventually registering with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).”
Another priority is being part of the Walter Sisulu University advisory board, to ensure the institution’s engineering faculty retains its ECSA accreditation. “WSU is a rich source of black engineers for our industry in the Eastern Cape,” she said. “It is important for the university to remain accredited and to build recognition for itself.”
Despite these industry challenges, Ngacu said there has been progress and that working at GIBB – a black-owned company – is deeply fulfilling. “Over my 11 years at the company, I’ve had the honour of seeing projects right through from inception to close-out, and felt the satisfaction of seeing clean potable water emerge from a tap after working on a water project for years.”
She said the SAICE role was rewarding in that it gave her a chance to be hands-on in developing her industry. “At our recent schools’ Water and Bridge Building competition, it was amazing to see how grateful students were to be able to learn and participate.”
She said that having inspirational teachers when she was at school in Butterworth, Eastern Cape, had laid the foundation for her engineering career. She looked forward to doing the same for the next generation, mentoring more young black women to become engineers and to seeing her industry growing as a dynamic, diverse sector serving South Africa’s needs.
To women looking to succeed in engineering, she had one message: “Don’t wish for it. Work.”