Founder of black-empowered consulting engineering firm PD Naidoo & Associates Pragalathan Dhanapalan (Dempsey) Naidoo may be retiring from Mott MacDonald, but the civil engineering industry and business world, he tells Tracy Hancock of Engineering News, has not yet seen the last of him.
South Africa is set to head down a rocky road of politically and economically induced contraction, as the lack of basic service delivery that has and will increasingly become apparent could herald severe social unrest, maybe even revolution, says engineering veteran Dempsey Naidoo.
He is optimistic, however, about the country’s ability to prevail and ensure that basic services are made available to all South Africans and, in so doing, the creation of much-needed jobs through the construction and other industries.
“Yes, black empowerment is important to redress past and even persisting injustices and prejudices. But we need to redistribute the wealth and the land of the country to the masses and not only to a select few. You don’t have to be corrupt and bend the rules to achieve this.”
The Durban-born 58-year-old, an entrepreneur, engineer and businessperson, predicts that, in 10 to 15 years, the politics of service delivery will continue to dominate voting patterns at local and provincial government level, as the housing and services backlogs persist.
Naidoo emphasises that he has worked with brilliant technical staff and policymakers in government, “totally committed to their jobs”, although they are growing increasingly frustrated through overt political interference.
There is, however, still much hope if government appoints people to the boards of State-owned enterprises, such as power utility Eskom and national carrier South African Airways, who are blunt about making them a success to their mandates and to stand up to malpractice and governance lapses. “Private- and public-sector boards appear to adopt bullying strategies as opposed to team debate and consensus for success.”
Although Naidoo is heartened by more personalities and veterans of the struggle starting to stand up and say “we need to fix this place”, he believes they “should have spoken up a lot earlier”.
“The kind of structural reform we need is going to take 50 years, unfortunately,” says Naidoo, emphasising that he ran PD Naidoo for 25 years to the highest governance standards to the point where the company was cut off from workload, as it refused to enter into contracts that looked even slightly tainted by corruption. At the time of deciding to sell the business, corruption had reached such alarming proportions in South Africa in private and government circles that Naidoo felt the business would die if he continued with his ethical stance. “And I would rather sell it than pay someone a bribe for a job.”
Global engineering, management and development consultancy Mott MacDonald had been working in Africa for 100 years mostly on developmental projects when it acquired PD Naidoo in 2012 to grow further in Africa and consolidate its South African base.
Naidoo planned to retire from engineering a year after he sold the company, but stayed on to help with the merger of the companies and to get Mott MacDonald further entrenched into Africa.
However, the business is a bit smaller since being sold to Mott MacDonald, as the company has also gone through a global strategy change in the last 12 months, restructuring to focus on certain sectors “where its specialist skills are best deployed for maximum effect”.
“Since 2014, the business has, and is still, going through difficulties, largely because the economy is at its lowest ebb,” says Naidoo, highlighting, however, that among the top leadership of Mott MacDonald in South Africa remain many colleagues from the original PD Naidoo firm.
But having grown the business and with good succession management in place, Naidoo says it is time for him to follow his other dreams. He retired on December 1, 2016, as Mott MacDonald Africa Unit MD, but will stay on in an advisory role until the end of February.
Born in Malvern, in KwaZulu-Natal, Naidoo plans for his retirement to revolve around family, leisure and business, whereas previously business took first place. He has invested in a flat in Umhlanga, Durban, where he intends to ensure that he enjoys the warm Indian Ocean. “Fisherman there tell me they are still catching good shad, so it will be good to drop a line in off the rocks and see what I can catch myself.”
“I always planned to retire at 55 to do other things in terms of benefiting South African society and business,” elaborates Naidoo, who is the nonexecutive chairperson of the Texton Property Fund on the JSE and has various start-up companies, ranging from an automotive company and financial services to a technology company.
He will also be launching a foundation focused on health, education and innovation with his wife Jackie, who he met in Johannesburg and married on April 24, 1982. “Work on these charitable initiatives has already started. I plan to leverage my business connectivity to scale things up, so we can make a real difference to the deserving causes.”
Road to Civil Engineering
Growing up on an idyllic smallholding in Queensburgh, Malvern, Naidoo’s early childhood memory is fragranced by mangos, litchis and naartjies, with the area home to small-scale farmers of every creed and colour. As with others of his generation, he is able to recall the area’s unpaved roads and fresh milk being delivered to the door, with these memories interspersed with those of his father carrying crates of fruit to sell at the Durban ‘Indian’ market.
From five-years-old, however, his childhood is darkened by “a lot of angst” and being forcibly moved in 1964 by the apartheid government to a two-roomed house in Chatsworth, whereafter, Naidoo says, “the spontaneity and drive [were] missing from our lives”.
And yet, his parents did not promote anger over politicisation. “Instead, they advocated an appreciation for what you have and making the most of this. The best way I can describe my early years is ‘practical moderation’, which is a good understanding of the political climate and the economics of my home, and a wonderful understanding of what the future can give you if you apply yourself.”
Hosting various family members and friends who would exchange a plate of food for a “pot of knowledge”, Naidoo was exposed to a collection of views, teaching him to accept the views of others and internalise and think about how to react to these views after taking them into consideration. “Collective thinking has always been at the heart of my strength as a businessman. I am no special brainbox, but what I am is a good team player.”
While everyone in his high school class had plans to become doctors, lawyers or teachers, Naidoo, who supports Leeds United and Orlando Pirates, had “grand ambitions” of being a top soccer player and even underwent brief trials at West Ham United, but failed.
He had played soccer in the township in Chatsworth on terrible grounds, where play was stopped by rain “because there was no drainage”. He attributes his love for soccer to knowing of the need for better facilities growing up and the influence of an uncle, who emphasised the importance of civil engineers to connecting the dots for him, and sparking his interest in that field.
“Somehow, soccer, civil engineering and public health facilities caught my imagination. But I think it’s the ability to improve humankind’s wellbeing that finally got to me.”
After matriculating in 1974 from Chatsworth High School, he attended the University of Durban- Westville (now one of the campuses of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) for the first four months of 1975, as he was “kicked out”, owing to “nonperformance”.
Following his stint at university, Naidoo worked for a year at Ilco Homes, in Durban, which, today, is part of the Murray & Roberts group, as a junior estimator, saving up money to leave South Africa.
He applied to the Oxford Polytechnic, in the UK, where he was required to complete a higher diploma course as South Africa’s matric certificate is not equivalent to the UK’s A Level. “So, I left South Africa”, for which his conservative parents were very concerned, as they feared he would be corrupted by the lure of foreign lands and never return, explains Naidoo, who always envisioned returning to South Africa.
He did well enough to get a British Council/United Nations scholarship, enabling him to enrol in a four-year industrial course, graduating in 1981 with a BSc (Hons) in civil engineering from the UK’s Kingston University London, then Kinsgton Polytechnic.
“Anglo American’s civil engineering department brought me back to South Africa in 1981.” Naidoo worked there for six years, during which time he received “unbelievable technical training” in pipelines, dams, slimes and gold recovery. In 1987, when the political landscape was rapidly changing, Naidoo was one of a few black candidates invited onto the corporation’s vaunted management trainee programme, at the time reserved for the “blue bloods” of the ruling families.
In the meantime, attempting to ensure that his engineering skills were not lost, Naidoo, living in Lenasia, Johannesburg, which he explains as having “sprung up as a loose society from the forced removal era”, in the same manner as Chatsworth, soon came across other Indians who had qualifications in the built environment. In 1986, this grouping of people, who did projects in their spare time, gave rise to PD Naidoo.
In 1987/88, South Africa had been through what seemed intractable political violence in recent years, with the National Party government offering scraps of reform that were turned down time and again, and the scale of unrest was mounting.
Anglo American, which was leading a business charge by engaging with the ANC, which was exiled in Zambia, realised it had not transformed itself, explains Naidoo.
Consequently, he got on the fast path to becoming part of Anglo’s hierarchy as he was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the “lucky black exceptions” for the Anglo American Executive Management Programme in 1987, during which he served under Anglo American top brass, such as Kelvin Williams, Clem Sunter, Don Ncube, Peter Leyden and Graham Boustred.
With PD Naidoo having steadily grown to five technicians and two engineers, by 1996, Naidoo was ready to leave Anglo and take the reins of PD Naidoo as executive director. “The corporation wasn’t ready for radical management change, even in 1996,” he says of Anglo.
PD Naidoo caught the wave of early black empowerment, which Naidoo says was “done properly in the early” days, and grew very rapidly to the point where the company, which started off as a community exercise, peaked as the best-known black empowerment consulting engineering company in 2006/7, competing with the likes of consulting companies Arup and Aurecon.