After nearly 14 years of talks and strong opposition in the Free State, Sanral is pressing ahead with plans to cut a new pass through the Drakensberg to shorten the travel time between Durban and Joburg.
The proposed De Beers Pass route, which would shorten the route between the two cities by about 14km, has led to heated opposition from business forums, townsfolk and politicians in the Free State since the new route would bypass Harrismith, Van Reenen, Swinburne and Warden.
The R5 billion project also involves building a sixth mainline toll plaza on the N3, pushing up toll payments from the current level of R184.50 for normal cars between the two cities.
However, the environmental management consultants for the project have announced that publication of the final EIA (environmental impact assessment) report is now delayed until the end of this year.
Consultants Acer Africa said several concerns had been raised by stakeholders about the social, economic and environmental impacts of the project, and the final report was likely to be published some time after October.
One of the most vocal opponents has been the Harrismith Business Forum, which fears that the 150-year-old Free State centre could become a “ghost town” if it were bypassed by the new N3 freeway routing proposal.
The Free State government and local ANC branches have also voiced strong concern as there are plans to develop a major freight and logistics hub in Harrismith.
Sanral, which has been pushing for the new route, along with the N3 Toll Concession, argues that the current freeway cannot be upgraded into a 120km/h freeway through the existing mountain pass at Van Reenen.
Instead, it wants to build an entirely new toll road from the existing toll plaza at the Tugela River by cutting a new mountain pass and tunnel through the Drakensberg and then linking up with the existing freeway near Warden (where another toll plaza would be erected to pay for the upgrade).
Although several Free State farms have already been expropriated for the bypass road, Sanral is under growing pressure to consider alternative routes which do not isolate towns along the existing route.
According to a revised map of alternative route proposals published last week, Sanral could also follow most of the existing N3 route through the Free State – although a new pass could be cut to the north of the existing Van Reenens Pass instead of going through De Beers Pass (see map).
The original De Beers Pass route has been on the drawing boards since the 1970s but was shelved because of lack of money.
In the late 1990s, the proposal was revived by the N3 Toll Concession but was strongly opposed in the Free State.
Documents posted on the Acer Africa website also suggest that former transport minister Jeff Radebe told stakeholders in 2008 that the De Beers plan would not go ahead. In 2009 the Free State premier told the provincial legislature that De Beers should not go ahead.
But according to Acer Africa, the N3 Toll Concession was “not aware of any formal decision” that De Beers had been scrapped.
Isaac Cebekhulu, of the Greater Harrismith Socio-Economic Forum, expressed surprise in 2010 that Sanral was still pushing for the bypass when “our government for the people has promised all the stakeholders in Harrismith that this route won’t happen”.
Bernard Deysel, the chairman of the Harrismith Business Forum, said the N3 was the lifeblood of the community and any attempt to shift it away from Harrismith would bring “disastrous consequences for the town”.
Several residents of Warden also complained in late 2010 that the bypass route would harm their region and called instead for the upgrading of the existing N3.
“My business is going to die. People will lose their jobs. Forget about this bypass road,” Omar Faruk of the Warden Mini Market told the road consultants.
Mmathuta Mashiloane of Warden said: “We are going to lose jobs and die of hunger,” while fellow resident Cynthia Nkosi said: “Forget about De Beers Pass. It is just a nightmare.”
Several farmers complained that their land had been expropriated to build the bypass road and if it did not go ahead they faced the prospect of trying to buy back their land at inflated prices from Sanral.
According to Sanral, however, the N3 Toll Concession was legally obliged to maintain the existing N3 route until 2029 even if the De Beers route was built. -The Mercury