Police and rescue workers at the three-storey building which collapsed in Thongathi, about 45km north of Durban. Picture: REUTERS

Tongaat -

The commission of inquiry into the Thongathi Mall collapse which killed two people and injured 29 is expected to cost the Department of Labour R2 million.

The inquiry got under way this week to determine what went wrong at the building site where a R208m shopping complex is being built by Gralio Precast, a company linked to beleaguered businessman Jay Singh, his ex-wife Shireen Annamalay and son Ravi Jagadasan.

The commission’s presiding officer is Joburg-based Phumudzo Maphaha, a manager in the occupational health and safety, construction sub-section of the Labour Department.

The department’s Lennie Samuel and Sandile Khubeka are also commission members.

The inquiry is expected to take about six months and will include interviews with relevant stakeholders.

Maphaha and his team will also sift through submissions by witnesses before giving their recommendation.

The commission’s mandate is to uncover what led to the deaths of Zwelibanzi Masuko and Zakhithi Nxumalo, and the injury of 29 employees during the incident.

“We have an obligation to report to the public,” said Maphaha, who is an engineer.

In keeping with Labour legislation, Maphaha’s team is conducting a Section 32 hearing, which seeks to investigate negligence that might have resulted in occupational injuries and the death of workers.

The commission was established after a directive from the department’s chief inspector, Thobile Lamati.

Maphaha is expected to subpoena all affected stakeholders to testify.

While Maphaha has chaired various high-profile inquests, Kubheka and Samuel also have extensive experience in engineering-related inquests.

Khubeka is a deputy director in the department’s inspection and enforcement services section. Samuel, who serves as an assistant director in the same department, is also a forensic investigator and organiser.

Keeping a close eye on proceedings are the legal teams of:

l Gralio, comprising advocate Saleem Khan and attorneys Rajan Naidoo and Arvind Kissoon Singh.

l Engineers contracted to Gralio, represented by Richard Hoal.

l eThekwini Municipality, led by advocate Ian Topping.

l Safety consultant Ismaiel Van Zyl, represented by attorney Omprakash Ramlakan.

Advocate Saleem Khan, instructed by attorney Naidoo from Gralio’s camp, has been the busiest of the lot as the five witnesses who have testified thus far were either employed or hired by the company.

The week’s proceedings started on Tuesday and much time was spent setting parameters and working through legalities.

First to appear was Gralio’s site foreman, Ronnie Pillay, who raised the issue of a concrete slab sagging by as much as 70mm days before the collapse.

Pillay, who has no formal qualification for his position but 14 years of experience in the construction industry, revealed he was allegedly instructed to continue operations on the site in spite of an interim high court order secured by the municipality to stop work.

Pillay also told of how he raised with Singh the issue that columns holding up the slab which collapsed were too thin.

But Singh apparently told him engineer Andre Ballack had “okayed” them. Under cross-examination by Ballack’s attorney, Hoal, Pillay was unable to substantiate his claim.

Brickworks supervisor Prashalen Gounder testified that he too had not been schooled in his trade, the commission heard.

On Thursday, Rishen Naidoo of Freyssinet Posten, the company contracted to supply and install post tensioning cables to concrete slabs, said of the nine inspections of slabs, Ballack signed off on only one occasion.

Maphaha said: “It raises my stress levels when all the signatures are not there.”

Van Zyl said he had never signed off on any scaffolding or supports to be moved and claimed there were no safety audits on the site.

Rob Young, a structural engineer with 45 years’ experience who was hired by Gralio to assess what caused the collapse, took the stand briefly on Friday.

He said to properly assess the cause of the collapse, design plans of the mall need to be studied and the pillars need to be examined after a controlled removal of debris.

Nhlanhla Khumalo, spokesman for the department, said: “We are satisfied with progress made in the four sessions by the commission.”

Singh and Jagadasan were also at the hearing. However, the families of the dead and injured did not attend.

The commission reconvenes in April.

- Sunday Tribune