Picture: 123RF/thamkc
Picture: 123RF/thamkc

Protesters have warned that construction of the multibillion rand N2 Wild Coast highway will not resume until their demands regarding the project were met.

The R9bn project starts in Port Edward on the KwaZulu-Natal border and ends in East London, in the Eastern Cape. Construction on the highway, which is expected to cut the route by more than three hours, has been stalled since October  following protests by local communities as well another heavily armed group.

A group comprising community members, the Amadiba Crisis Committee and locals who were part of a group dubbed the “construction mafia” that carried assault rifles and were demanding a slice of the contract had invaded the construction site. This eventually forced Aveng-Strasbag, a joint venture between the SA and Belgian engineering firms, to stop work on its R1.6bn contract to build a massive bridge over the Mtentu River.

Upon completion the bridge was expected to be 220m high and 1.1km long. It was touted as one of the longest main-span balanced cantilever bridges in the world.

In March, the North Gauteng High Court said the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) could claim damages for the contract.

However, Aveng said at the time that “the Aveng Strabag joint venture considers the dismissal of the application to be wrong and, based on legal advice, is appealing the judgment”.

“Sanral, despite itself having suspended the works on site for 83 days for the same reasons, took the approach that there was no force majeure and that the [joint venture’s] termination constituted a repudiation of the contract,” the company said.

It said the venture “remains confident that its right to terminate arose after being prevented from executing works on the project site by community unrest, protest action and threats of violence against its personnel, related to community demands made against Sanral”.

However, Sanral disputed this, saying the joint venture terminated the contract because of Aveng’s “publicly known” financial problems.

Two weeks ago transport minister Blade Nzimande and Sanral executives addressed several meetings in the Wild Coast to solicit the assistance of traditional leaders and community members so that construction could resume.

Nzimande’s spokesperson, Ishmael Mnisi, said the minister was speaking to all stakeholders to ensure that the project resumed with immediate effect.

“The minister stressed that if the project was allowed to stall further, it would cost billions more and government might even consider abandoning it altogether. He said there would be direct and tangible benefits that this entire project brings to the citizens of this district and this province.” 

However, Nonhle Mbuthuma, spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which is also vehemently opposed to mining in the Xolobeni area, said they would not allow the construction workers onto the site until their demands were met.

She said these demands included moving  the road further from the coast because in its current form it would affect the area’s ecosystem and the related tourism.

“As it stands, it is clear that the road is not built for us but is built to provide the logistic for the titanium mine proposed for Xolobeni. We will not allow that to happen,” she said.

In November, the high court ruled that the mineral resources minister could not award a right to mine in Xolobeni, unless “full and informed” consent had been obtained from the community.

Her sentiments were echoed by a member of the “construction mafia”, who asked not to be named for fear of being arrested.

“According to the rules and regulations for this project, up to 30% of the project must go to local contractors, and some of work must be done by local people. This is not happening. We are saying contractors from other place are benefiting and people from other area are working. There is nothing for locals. We cannot allow this to happen,” he said.