A recent story run by FleetWatch in our weekly newsletter headed ‘Is this the end of the IRTE?’ and repeated in this edition on page 12 because of its importance, resulted in some pretty active email exchanges between members of the Cape Town and Johannesburg centres of the Institute of Road Transport Engineers. I also received an email from Lyndon Smith, that grand man from AAD Truck and Bus in Cape Town, with a picture attached of a group of what he terms Ex-IRTE members at their quarterly ‘catch-up’ lunch gathering. In response to the FleetWatch article, Lyndon wrote: “Just for the record, yesterday we had 14 ex-IRTE members for our quarterly lunch together. We also had five apologies for yesterday’s date. As always, we discussed a bit of history – with great memories – and what is going on today in the transport industry. Our next lunch date will probably be in November. Last year we had 34 ex IRTE ‘truckers’ attend the year end luncheon.”
Isn’t it just great to hear that these guys still get together for ‘catch-up’ gatherings every couple of months. I have always contended that the trucking industry is a fraternity where the bonds of friendship remain forever. The fact that the guys still make time to get round a lunch table in a circle of friendship proves this to be true. It reminds me of a circle of friendship I have with some buddies from our old Linden school days – one of whom, my dear friend Alan Busuttil, goes back 54 years with me to 1963 when we met in Standard 6 at De La Salle College. And we have been friends ever since. A small group of us from those days still get together once a month for lunch at the Thunder Gun Steakhouse in Blackheath. I think too of my army mates. We too get together once a month to keep the circle of friendship going. Two of my buddies in this circle, Mike McWilliams and Jimmy Bakos, go back with me to 1970 – that’s 47 years – when we shared a bungalow at 1 Parachute Battalion in Tempe and qualified together as paratroopers. I value these friendships and these gatherings but the point is, like the ex-IRTE members in Cape Town, we too are ex ‘active’ schoolboys and ex ‘active’ paratroopers. If I tried to do now what I did in 1970 when I volunteered as a paratrooper, they would have to call for the medics to carry me away at the start of the obstacle course – never mind getting to the first obstacle. I would never get my wings. Yes, we will always be paratroopers – and proud ones at that – but we are not ‘active’ serving paratroopers. We leave that to the young guys to ‘vasbyt’ as we had to in our days. And that is my point regarding the IRTE members.
Yes, it is great that ex IRTE members still get together as friends in Cape Town. That must never stop. However, what led to the running of the story on page 12 of this edition is the ‘inactivity’ of the ‘active’ members of the IRTE in Johannesburg. At the last meeting there were only 12 people in the room – four of whom were actually IRTE members. The rest, including me, were guests. In the early 1970s, there were up to 300 present at such meetings. The increasingly poor turnout and lack of active input from members led to the committee issuing a statement that the decision had been taken to end monthly meetings until further notice. It went on to say that: “We hope that after more than 60 years of existence, this will not be goodbye to the Johannesburg centre activities but rather a break to allow a breathing space for introspection and review of the situation in the short term.”
When I received the statement, it was a case of déjà vu – a French term for the feeling that you have lived through this before. And we have, as confirmed by another grand man of the industry, Ian Szapira. “This is exactly what happened to us (Cape Town Centre) a number of years ago,” he wrote in an email.
Let’s leave out all the ‘rhetoric’ and get to the crunch. The IRTE Cape Town Centre has ex-IRTE members who gather as mates for lunch; the Durban Centre is – well, who knows where and the Johannesburg Centre has members who are out there but are certainly not ‘active’ in any IRTE activities. So is the IRTE dead? As it stands, I reckon it is. So where to from here? South Africa needs an ‘active’ group of engineers to represent the technical issues of the industry on many fronts. Let me give you just one simple example of why I say this. At the RFA conference held earlier this year, one of the speakers was a gentleman from the Department of Transport. In his speech, he stated that the DoT has to implement some means of testing trucks after they have been bought and put into operation because you can’t just let them run for years without being tested. As he said this, I realised he knew nothing of the COF system which forces an operator, by law, to have his truck tested once a year in order to receive a valid Certificate of Fitness disc. And these are the guys who make the rules for trucking. I give this one simple example as a case in point. If this level of ignorance exists for a simple thing like a COF, what then of the more complex technical issues related to trucking?
While I do understand that there are loyal and traditional ties between some members of the South African IRTE and the London head-office under which the South African branch falls, I reckon it’s time to form an independent local South African Road Transport Engineers Forum – or body – or organisation – or whatever you want to call it. Those members who want to keep their link with the London head-office can do so. They pay their membership fees to London anyway. But South Africa has its own unique challenges and needs its own engineering body to meet those challenges. What’s more, it needs young people to join such a body. When I looked at the picture sent to me by Lyndon Smith of the Cape Town guys gathered around the table, I saw a great bunch of guys but – all had either grey hair, bald heads or a mixture of the two. Luckily I still have my hair, but it is grey. There are some stunning young people in our industry but they are obviously not attracted to the current structures that exist in the industry. Maybe they feel it’s for the ‘toppies’. I have always said that the ideal combination in any organisation is to have a mixture of old-timer experience and youthful enthusiasm. The IRTE only has the former. I am not against the IRTE structures, members or loyalists. What I am for is the South Africa trucking industry as a whole and putting its best interests at heart. These interests are not being served by the current structures of the local IRTE – and haven’t been for some time. It’s time to shelve the old and bring in the new.