THE job of the metro's only remaining qualified and experienced city engineer is hanging in the balance.
Walter Shaidi's five-year contract with the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality comes to an end this month and the council is yet to decide whether to renew it or show him the door.
If Shaidi leaves, the metro – which once had more than 50 permanent professional engineers – will have none, a damning indication of a steady brain drain in a municipality that governs the Eastern Cape's industrial hub.
Both mayor Zanoxolo Wayile and acting municipal manager Themba Hani have moved to allay fears of any "drastic decisions" regarding Shaidi's contract, saying council has yet to decide on it.
Besides Shaidi, the metro's infrastructure department has only technicians and junior engineers who are unable to deal with the city's rapidly growing infrastructure needs.
Authorities are under pressure from residents and the business sector to refurbish old, crumbling infrastructure and build new infrastructure.
This year, the metro has borne the brunt of residents' anger, especially from Walmer township, Motherwell and Uitenhage residents, who have repeatedly taken to the streets in violent protests to demand proper services.
In the meantime, Local Government MEC Mlibo Qoboshiyane has appointed Tendai Tiani, also a qualified engineer, to "assist" Shaidi's department for six months.
This until the council finally decides if and when to find a permanent replacement.
Opposition parties are pushing for an urgent council meeting to be held soon. So far, the only planned meeting is scheduled for December 6.
Speaker Maria Hermans said this week many councillors were writing exams.
DA councillor Leon de Villiers said: "He [Shaidi] is the last fully qualified engineer with the relevant experience that we have left.
"His contract ends at the end of November and he has been told that he is being replaced by the Section 154 appointments.
"It's disgusting that they're prepared to release a qualified engineer who is competent and has a good track record, when we are desperately short of qualified civil engineers. He is one of the best engineers we have had," De Villiers said.
SA Institutionof Civil Engineering (Saice) board member David Dotha said the municipality needed to have a professional engineer with 15 to 20 years' experience in the field registered with the Engineers' Council of South Africa.
"If there is no professional city engineer, the municipality will have no signing powers to sign off on projects and will be totally reliant on the integrity of consultants," Dotha said.
"If a junior engineer has to oversee a project, he would not be experienced enough to know right from wrong. The consequences of this could be serious, if not disastrous, unless the municipality relies heavily on substantially experienced consultants."
Saice spokeswoman Marie Ashpole said a lack of engineers would affect service delivery.
"We know there have been a lot of protests in places like Motherwell.
"The cost of employing consultants is astronomical and that means there is less money left for infrastructure projects.
"Projects like water distribution, sanitation, roads, you name it, all can't be done if you have to employ consultants," she said.
The municipality relies heavily on engineering consulting firms to repair roads, bridges and service sites.
A former city engineer, who worked for the municipality for nearly 40 years, said most of the engineers who had left were now consultants for the metro.
He did not want to be named because it could jeopardise his work for the municipality.
He was one of five engineers who left in frustration at about the same time in 2008 because "the stand of professionalism was lost".
"When the metro was formed in 2000, the quality of work changed because management no longer cared about the qualifications and experience of engineers, they were concerned about getting the equity right.
"It's not about race because there were qualified black engineers. It was political.
"We became frustrated because we had to teach people in higher positions to do the work."
He said there were fewer than 10 professional engineers by the time he left and that number had dropped down to one senior city engineer and two junior engineers fresh out of university.
"It's a disgrace that a metro of this size, with such a big budget, does not have proper city engineers.
"Designs from consultants have to be approved by a qualified professional engineer.
"Most of us went to work for consulting firms and we are all doing the same work we used to do for the municipality," he said.
Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber president Mandla Madwara said it was important for the city to employ appropriate, qualified and experienced engineers.
"The municipality needs to recruit and replace the people who have left because we need engineers to oversee projects and ensure they are being implemented properly.
"They must pay them well to attract new engineers and have a retention strategy in place to keep them."
Shaidi could not be reached for comment.