By Eamonn Ryan | Images by: Eamonn Ryan

Matthews Magwaza, lecturer at The School of Concrete Technology (SCT), has been working for the Institute for 27 years, 15 of those as its most highly experienced lecturer in concrete.

Matthews Magwaza, lecturer at The School of Concrete Technology (SCT), at his favourite spot – the lecturer’s podium.

Matthews Magwaza, lecturer at The School of Concrete Technology (SCT), at his favourite spot – the lecturer’s podium.

Magwaza started by doing all the concrete courses himself, qualifying as a concrete technologist through the TCI, which delivers courses overseen by the UK Institute of Concrete Technology.
“I started as a laboratory assistant and worked my way up to lecturing,” he says. From this experience, he is one of the most well-known lecturers and personalities in the concrete industry, whether at universities of technology, universities or among the corridors of construction corporates.

“What inspired me to follow this field is concrete: I love concrete. Even before TCI (as it only later came to be known) I worked for a company called Cement Distributors in its sales department. I was intrigued by the various aspects of concrete and wanted to know more about it. So, I did various courses at that early stage through TCI’s predecessor Cement and Concrete Institute, which qualified me as a concrete technologist,” says Magwaza.

Of the enrolees on brick- and block-making courses, about 80% come from employees of major brick manufacturers and 20% from the informal brick making sector. Corporate brickmakers send their staff on TCI courses to give them a fundamental understanding of brick and block making technology, while the informal market attends courses to either learn how to make bricks – or how to make them correctly.

“What motivates me on a daily basis is the facility to impart my knowledge especially to small business owners who, with this knowledge, can transform their businesses into something more substantial. The people I train are all at different levels, from a person who has never done anything with concrete but wants to learn more, through to employees of concrete and cement manufacturers who want to upskill.”

While many people have no desire to improve their lot in life beyond scraping a meagre living – and it is beyond Magwaza’s scope to inspire everyone – a key part of the training he delivers is to get learners to see that through learning they can improve their careers and businesses for the long term.

Magwaza’s tenure at TCI was once broken for a year: “I initially worked for Cement and Concrete Institute for 16 years, at which point I was recruited by another company. I worked there only for one year, because I found I was not using my knowledge to my full ability – I found myself sitting in meetings half the day, whereas what I wanted to be doing was standing in front of a class to give people the invaluable knowledge on the product I love the most, concrete.”

Part of his love for his work is the constant positive feedback he gets from learners. “There was a woman in Swaziland who had a small brick-making business and her bricks were constantly failing. She couldn’t understand what the problem was, and eventually found us on the internet and did one of our courses, the basic half-day course ‘Making concrete bricks and blocks’ which has a lab session included. I kept in touch with her and now her business is booming, and she is supplying her bricks to the Swaziland government. What was found during the course was that her mix ratios were not right, and the type of cement used was not right – in fact, a lot of things were not right. I corrected her on all those mistakes, and now she’s got it right.”

There are five essential aspects to successfully making a concrete brick or block:

  • The ratios
  • The type of cement used
  • The strength
  • The curing
  • The type of materials used

Challenges and achievements

With learners enrolling from all parts of southern Africa, Magwaza’s biggest challenge is consequently the language barrier. “In South Africa, with our 11 languages there are people who cannot speak English. I deliver the course in English, and then I can explain what I just said individually in their home language (he speaks five local languages: English, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and Tswana, and is less fluent in a sixth – Afrikaans).

He lists his biggest personal accomplishment in life as acquiring his Concrete Technician qualification, which has formed the basis of his subsequent career, but his fundamental accomplishment, he says, is the help he constantly delivers to other people.

Much of his enjoyment comes from helping the informal market – individuals who make concrete bricks in rural areas, but typically not to SANS standards (which would be the domain of the major brick manufacturers). These are people who sell bricks in rural areas, and if the bricks are faulty, those residences or other structures are in real danger of falling down.

The irony is that people who don’t know how to make bricks opt for a career in brick-making. What typically happens, says Magwaza, is that an employed person gets retrenched and decides to go into business for him/herself with their retrenchment pay-out. If they are wise, they will start off by doing a course, but this is not always the case. They often just buy a cheap machine and start making poor quality blocks, only realising their folly later when they can’t sell their blocks.

To meaningfully help this sector, TCI decided to proactively get out into the field and locate brickmakers to enrol on the course and to train them at a reduced price. “I went into all the townships to each and every brick and block maker, in Pretoria, Midrand and elsewhere, and could only persuade two people. The rest were not interested. The common argument was, ‘Why should I leave my job and spend money when I am going to lose income during that time?’ Once again, one of the people who did attend similarly reported his business in Westonaria is booming. So, training helps – if only we could get others to see.”

In addition to the ever-popular Bricks and Blocks course, Magwaza also delivers the following TCI courses, which are a combination of half-day courses or special courses:

  • Introduction to concrete
  • Concrete basics
  • Mortars, plasters, screeds and masonry
  • Concrete for RMC truck drivers
  • Concrete for batchers and batch plant staff
  • Common concrete tests

A number of other courses are delivered by his colleagues John Roxburgh, Gary Theodosiou and Bryan Perrie (head of the TCI).

The future

Where small-scale brick makers are likely to lose out is that concrete is an ever-evolving industry, and the “the one thing that is certain is that there will be technological improvements in the future”.

“As research evolves, we continually update our courses to stay abreast and implement any changes. The future of entrepreneurship is through knowledge and skills – if they don’t get that knowledge, they will find it difficult to produce bricks and blocks to the required quality. There are some initiatives to get informal brick makers to manufacturer their bricks to the requirements of SANS 1215 which means that those which don’t will fall further behind will find it increasingly difficult to sell their products.

“That’s where I come in. Brick makers that wish to sell on a larger scale to corporate developers or government need to produce bricks and blocks of high quality and have them tested and certified often. Corporates and government cannot buy from them unless their products are certified to the SANS standard,” says Magwaza.