This article examines the understanding of professionalism and professional conduct within the broader spectrum of South Africa, with a particular focus on the engineering and geomatics disciplines.
At the mention of the term “professional”, all sorts of resonances spring to mind, to mention but a few – quality, honesty, ethics, and morally correct conduct. Even in sports, professional players are expected to reflect certain behavioural patterns both on and off the field. Those who do not comply are often condemned to the atrocious brunt of the public backlash. A few that come to mind are disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Tiger Woods and our very own cricketer, the late Hansie Cronje. They are all seen to have betrayed the trust of both the sponsors and the public by virtue of their different misdeeds.
Trust forms a cornerstone of professionalism, says Kinsinger , and with good reason. Professionalism, ethics, and morals cannot be separated and with these in place it is seldom possible to betray trust. On the other hand, those are not the only aspects that make up a professional individual; responsibility and accountability are also integral ingredients of being a professional.
The meaning of professionalism
Professionalism is a philosophy of serving the needs of a profession, which in turn refers to a self-controlled occupation that is guided by institutional rules in order to render service to the end-user . To be a professional is paramount to being a custodian of the profession that one represents. It is expected that such an individual should always seek to measure up to a certain code of conduct when going about the business of a profession. A professional code of conduct may include behaviour, work ethics, and habits . While there might be a fine line between the three, they all form part of the bigger picture of what a professional should aspire to in all facets of their daily operations.
Ethics are a good indication of the commitment to a course by a person, and even though it is risky that should not be a deterrent . It is risky in the sense that operational licences are at stake. All professionals have to take cognisance of the fact that what they do in their respective professions, ends up in the hands of the general public . As a result of this, good ethics serve to protect both the public and the profession and are therefore essential for the strengthening of professional and public trust.
On the other hand, both Evans  and Kinsinger  state that the value of being a professional has since diminished and is no longer as attractive as it used to be. I can understand why they make such statements; society is no longer as concerned with what is morally correct. The focus is more on things that put money in pockets.
The scourge of corruption in the country is appalling to say the least. The morality of the people has diminished. The days of sealing deals with gentlemen’s handshakes are gone, and people renege on agreements with impunity. All of these calamities are a thorn in the pursuit of high standards of professionalism simply because there are no guarantees that being professional will be reciprocated by the next person. But as hard as it to be professional these days, it simply has to coexist with these harsh conditions without compromise.
Professionalism in the South African context
In the highly regarded health sector in the country, all practitioners ranging from a paramedic to a specialist have to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in order to practice, as provided in Act 56 of 1974. Failure to comply with the prescribed rules and regulations often leads to legal action taken against them and, at worse, losing a licence to practice. The point here is that the registration of professionals is a good means of ensuring quality service and keeping the public out of harm’s way.
Similarly, at the centre of the development of the country’s ever expanding infrastructure are the engineers who also have to register with their statutory body, the Engineering Council of South Africa (Act 46 of 2000) . Registration categories range from a Technician to a Professional Engineer and their existence is also aimed at protecting the public who are the end users of infrastructural developments such as the roads, bridges and other services. If these services were constructed in a poor manner, it would then expose the public to man-made disasters. This means that these professionals are essentially responsible for ensuring that such disasters do not happen, thereby safeguarding the public.
There are implications for negligence; as was the case with the project engineers associated with the fatal Tongaat mall collapse that took place near Durban’s King Shaka International Airport in 2013. Engineers and professionals at large can be held responsible if their actions or lack thereof, resulting in such disasters. Not only do they risk losing their licences to operate, but could also face manslaughter charges.
Professionalism in the Geomatics context
Professional status in the Geomatics profession is no different to the cases referred to above. Surveyors have always had a code of conduct to follow since the advent of the old PLATO council (Act 40 of 1984) and before. It is the same legacy that will form the basis of the new council that is provided for in the new Geomatics Act 19 of 2013 . Furthermore, surveyors are known to hold high ethical and moral standards and are highly regarded; many of them were seen as leaders in their communities such as Grahamstown’s Henry Carter Galpin and the Cape’s Sir Thomas Maclear.
Section 13(2) of the Geomatics Profession Act 19 of 2013 makes provision for work reservation and is aimed at minimising the risk of exposing the public to unqualified and unprofessional persons, thereby ensuring the integrity of the profession and its members. Furthermore, section 19 of this act refers to the drafting and the publication of the professional code of conduct, enabling the general public to have access to information regarding the calibre of the professionals that they choose to work with. Under the “powers and duties of council” in section 8(1)(d)(ix), provisions are made for the continuing professional development (CPD) programme, thereby setting the stage for continuous training for all registered persons.
In addition to registration, competency, and qualification, ethics are an integral part of being a successful and reliable surveyor. We were taught in the first year of our diploma programme that the qualities of a good surveyor include being honest, reliable, and trustworthy, never being complacent and always doing checks when conducting surveys. Personally, this belief has always formed the foundation of how I approach surveying tasks. It has enabled me to respect the profession and its rules.
I mentioned earlier that a professional is always expected to exhibit good ethics, behaviour and work habits . The kinds of ethics that can be interpreted in the geomatics discipline include honesty, responsibility, accountability as well as abiding by the laws that govern the profession. I also made reference to Tshelane , who argued that being responsible comes with its own risks. Well, everything we do as humans has an element of risk in it, and we therefore cannot say that we are sceptical of being accountable for our choices. The risky situation referred to here is a good means of self-evaluation, thus assuring quality by enforcing us as professionals to stay focused and make the right choices. It would be regarded as “passing the buck” if, for an example, one would expect someone else to take the blame for a surveyor who sets up the building that encroaches on the nearby property.
A Professional Surveyor’s accountability extends even to those whom they manage, for example, if a Technical Surveyor were to falsify the field-book contents or claim to have placed a beacon in the right place when he did not, the ramifications of that will always come to the professional’s door step as the responsible party for supervising that particular technician.
In addition, behaviours and work habits can be linked to general relations with fellow professionals and clients, as well as meeting of deadlines. Professionals in the surveying profession are not supposed to make false promises and to mislead.
The profession, a professional, and professionalism have different meanings but fall under the same overall concept.
To act professionally does not start when one registers. Maintaining good ethical values should be embedded throughout an aspiring professional’s career. When a person gets to a stage where they are able to apply the acquired trade knowledge and are simultaneously able to use some of the metacognitive skills regarding the rules of that trade, then that person is truly a professional.
An accomplished professional must possess good communication and interpersonal skills, over and above the knowledge of the relevant profession . Even though the relevant qualifications are a prerequisite for registration as a professional, the importance of these soft skills can never be understated.
There is no school for professionalism, it is achieved through long-term on-going development. This is why I am a big supporter of the CPD programme which seeks to ensure that qualified professionals stay relevant. And finally, there are no technological answers for ethical questions . Being professional is more about ethics than being good with technology.
 S Kinsinger: The Set and Setting: Professionalism Defined. Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, pp. 33-37, 2005.
 L Evans: Professionalism, professionality and the development of education professionals. British Journal of Educational Studies, 56(1), pp. 20-38, 2008.
 J Parkes and MB Harris: The Purposes of a Syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2), pp. 55-61, 2002.
 M Tshelane: Democratic postgraduate student leadership for a sustainable learning environment. Unisa Press, 28(3), pp. 717-732, 2014.
 Engineering Profession Act 46 of 2000 (2013).
 Geomatics Profession Act 19 of 2013 (2013).
 C McCormack: Reconceptualizing student evaluation of teaching: an ethical framework for changing times. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(5), pp. 463-476, 2005.
Contact Siyabonga Khanyeza, Mangosuthu University of Technology, Tel 031 907-7461, firstname.lastname@example.org