CAPTION: THE abandoned R74 between Harrismith and Bergville which according to tourism operators in the northern Berg has resulted in the closure of at least one guesthouse and the retrenchment of over 100 workers over the past year. Picture: Colleen Dardagan

Durban - Urgent talks with the Free State government are under way as KZN tourism officials fear a collapsed road construction contract will cause further Drakensberg guest house closures and staff retrenchments.

Bheko Madlala, spokesman for provincial economic and tourism MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu, said the department was “deeply” concerned about job losses in the Bergville area because of the state of a 15km stretch of road (R74) between Harrismith and the Oliviershoek Pass which has tourists avoiding the destination.

A technical task team had been appointed to investigate the state of the road and the KZN office was calling for urgency from the Free State roads department to start repair work, he said.

Three years ago, the now liquidated engineering and construction company Sanyati Holdings was awarded a multimillion-rand tender to upgrade the R74 which is the alternative to the N3 route between Harrismith and Mooi River. The road is also the main one to the northern Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage site and at least 100 tourist attractions.

While a spokesman for the Free State roads department, Zolile Walaza, would only say the company had run into financial difficulties, Sanyati chief executive Malcolm Lobban last year reportedly blamed incompetence and corruption in the Free State government for the collapse of the contract. The province’s roads department, headed by former sport portfolio committee chairman Butana Khompela, is under national administration.

Walaza said the road infrastructure backlog in that province was “quite huge” and financial resources were “grossly” insufficient.

He confirmed the meeting with Mabuyakhulu and said they regretted the state of the road.

Jean Carte, the owner of the Montusi Mountain Lodge, and a member of the Bushman’s River Tourism Association, said they were delighted when work started on the road early in 2010, before the World Cup.

“It went really well for a couple of months and then the work stopped. The repair work had got to the stage where only one lane was usable. Despite the work having stopped, the stop-go officials carried on with their duties for about two years and then that stopped too,” she said.

In May, the 165-year-old Little Switzerland, the first off-the-road guest house after crossing into KZN from the Free State, closed, leaving about 150 staff without jobs and, said Carte, now the 100-plus tourist attractions in the area were retrenching in earnest.

Carte said accommodation income in the district amounted to more than R200 million a year, and about 500 people were employed who each supported families in the neighbouring AmaZizi community.

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The Mercury