The Aveng Strabag JV responsible for building the R1.65-billion Mtentu bridge, in the Eastern Cape, has not returned to site following a three-month break as a result of violent community protests against the project.
The bridge forms part of the South African National Roads Agency Limited’s (Sanral’s) N2 Wild Coast road project. When completed, the 1.1 km Mtentu bridge will be one of the longest main-span balanced cantilever bridges in the world, and will reach heights of around 220 m. The project has been plagued by protests from surrounding communities, stating that they are unhappy with the number of jobs provided to them by Sanral.
The project is already roughly six months behind schedule. “We can confirm that the Aveng Strabag JV…did not return to site to start work on Monday, 14 January 2019, after the suspension of works was lifted,” says Sanral southern region lead N2 Wild Coast road project manager Craig McLachlan.
McLachlan says the N2 Wild Coast road political oversight committee, chaired by Eastern Cape Transport, Safety and Liaison MEC Weziwe Tikana, led negotiations to find a solution to the unrest. Following what McLachlan calls “protracted negotiations with the community, the petitioners and other local stakeholders”, a resolution was reached on January 9, with “all parties” agreeing on a process to resolve the remaining issues.
“A process was also agreed on to address any future issues without stopping work, and it was resolved that…bridge construction could resume unhindered from Monday, 14 January, 2019.” McLachlan says another outcome of the meeting was that a mobile police station would be established near the site to assist with security.
“All local stakeholders are now eager for the project to resume. Conditions around the site are peaceful,” says McLachlan. It appears, however, that the Aveng Strabag JV does not share Sanral’s sentiments. Aveng confirms that it has been “unable to work on the project site due to threats, unrest and protest action by the local community”, related to demands made against Sanral, as the employer of the Mtentu project.
“These events constitute a force majeure event under the contract.” Aveng adds that the JV does not share the view that the community engagement process has reached a stage where work can continue safely. Aveng says it is aware that disruption does sometimes occur on construction sites, but that the nature of the threats in this instance, as well as the level of unrest and protest action, are unprecedented.
“The construction of the Mtentu bridge is technically demanding and requires compliance with the most stringent international engineering and safety standards,” says the company. “There is zero margin for disruptions of the nature experienced.
“With so much at stake the ability to execute works safely and in accordance with international best practice is, and must be, the primary concern. This represents a core value of both organisations in the JV.
“The Aveng Strabag JV cannot resume the execution of the works in these circumstances. The Aveng Strabag JV simply cannot, and is not disposed to, risk the safety and wellbeing of its employees, and indeed the members of the community themselves.”