Industry news / 31 July 2014, 10:00am / Tania Broughton and Kamini Padayachee.
Durban - Completion of the R352 million upgrade of the often gridlocked N2/Umgeni Road interchange is under threat with the main contractor wanting to pull out because of constant “guerrilla-warfare” attacks on employees, allegedly by residents of two adjacent shack settlements.
The contractor, Rumdel Cape/ EXR Holdings/Mazcon Joint Venture, says the site, with enhanced security costing R1m every month and a trauma counselling facility, is “being run like a military outpost behind enemy lines”.
“The situation is nothing short of anarchic,” project manager Gary Williams said in an affidavit before Durban High Court Judge Mahendra Chetty yesterday.
He said the contractor was committed to completing the agreement, which involved the construction of multi-level flyovers, but the extra security costs should be borne by the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral).
But Sanral has pooh-poohed the suggestion, accusing Rumdel of exaggeration to “gain the sympathy of the court” and saying it was well aware that the site was sandwiched between two informal settlements, and of the associated security risks.
This attitude, Williams said, was a “mealy-mouthed, Pontius Pilate-like abdication of all responsibility”.
“We do not wish to terminate the agreement. It will be contrary to public interest because of the significant traffic difficulties incurred during construction.
“If we do, the contract will have to go out to tender again, a process which could take another year.
“But this is not just a contractual dispute. It is a dangerous situation involving murderous attacks,” he insisted.
The matter came before Judge Chetty as an urgent application in which the contractor was seeking an order that Sanral provide or pay for security or that the “violent events” constituted a force majeure (not anticipated or beyond control), entitling it to be released from the contract.
Williams said the contract had been “bedevilled” from the start by unrest and disorder, instigated by the communities of wards 23 and 25 because they believed they should be employed on site.
After a “threatening letter” warning of dire consequences from the community and meeting with local councillors, Sanral had decided that the (non-skilled) labour should be drawn equally from the two wards.
Williams said Rumdel had gone along with this because it seemed members of the community were intent on obstructing the project until they got their way.
But after that, there were numerous illegal work stoppages for various reasons, all of which were marked by intimidation, mob violence and destruction of property.
There were also legal strikes and, even when the labourers did come to work, they were militant and unproductive.
In May, after a month-long wildcat strike, they were dismissed en masse.
“In anticipation of further trouble, we established an escape plan for employees and we enhanced security. At a public liaison meeting, the ward councillors adopted an extremely aggressive attitude and threatened bloodshed unless the workers were reinstated.
“It was stated that the community is prepared to die for their jobs. They would stop the project and no army or police force would prevent that,” Williams said.
Since then, there had been further acts of violence. A worker had been struck on the head so hard that his hard hat had shattered. Another had had a lucky escape after being dragged into the bush by an angry, armed mob. The cab on a mobile crane had been set alight. Special “car port” screens had been requested to protect vehicles belonging to employees of the engineer on site from “projectiles thrown during riots”.
An interdict granted by the labour court had had little effect and, on June 2, a security guard had been fatally stabbed.
So far losses, excluding stoppages and strikes, were estimated at R113m.
Only if the situation normalised would the project be finished in about nine months, Williams said.
But Sanral regional manager Logashri Sewnarain said the application was an attempt by Rumdel to apply “pressure tactics” at a crucial stage of the project, and she accused Williams of making “over-dramatic statements”.
She disputed that the site had been subjected to regular and extreme violent attacks and said the murder of the security guard had been as a result of a dispute between him and a colleague over money.
“Security is the contractor’s responsibility, part of the contract price, and it should be able to afford to pay these costs.
“Sanral has not paid for security for any other contracts and this situation for Rumdel is no worse than for other contractors.”
Sewnarain said the contract should have been finished by this month, and Rumdel’s inability to assess when it was likely to complete the project was “of great concern”.