Death trap: The Bank of Lisbon building did not comply with building safety standards. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU
Death trap: The Bank of Lisbon building did not comply with building safety standards. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU

Gauteng education department employees, who were evacuated from two buildings in the Johannesburg CBD following a deadly fire in September, have warned that "logistical problems" may lead to disruptions of the matric exams in the province.

Almost 800,000 matriculants around the country are writing their final exams, which started on Monday.

In total, nine buildings owned by the Gauteng provincial government were evacuated following the fire that engulfed the government-owned Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD in September and claimed the lives of three firefighters. The evacuated buildings failed to meet the minimum requirements for health and safety compliance in accordance with legislation.

The education department’s head office staff were evacuated from two buildings which were deemed to be unsafe, leaving 800 staff members in limbo after complaining that newly allocated offices, as far away as Ekurhuleni, were “out of reach”.

Regional leaders of the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), who did not want to be named fearing reprisal as they are also employed by the department, said they have raised their concerns about the effect the crisis would have on the exams with management and the acting education MEC Jacob Mamabolo, who is standing in for Panyaza Lesufi, but the issue had not been addressed by Monday.

The union officials and employees who spoke to Business Day said the move to offices as far away as Ekurhuleni posed “logistical problems” to workers, while also amending their conditions of work unilaterally.

Workers who refused to relocate, including some employees in the exams directorate, were “in the streets”, according to the sources.

Some of the workers have been reporting for duty at the Hollard Building, also in the Johannesburg CBD, where education MEC Lesufi’s office and his heads of departments are situated. 

A failed meeting between Mamabolo and Sadtu, scheduled for Monday, was meant to give a report on how many people can be accommodated in the Hollard building until renovations at two privately owned buildings leased by the department were completed.

Gauteng government spokesperson Thabo Masebe has denied exam readiness would be affected, saying the department has instituted plans to “ensure operations continued uninterrupted with no danger of matric exams not going on”.

“The department continues to work with the employees to ensure that the issues are addressed and that everything should be done now to ensure that government operations continue and that service delivery continues. The concerns they raised about being dislocated from their normal places of work will be addressed,” he said.

Masebe admitted that workers had raised concerns over the state of the buildings, which were abandoned before being privately purchased and leased to the education department in 2016.

The department moved from its 111 Commissioner Street building, which it had occupied for 20 years, in 2016 to four different locations in the CBD. In two of these buildings, the ceilings had exposed electric wiring and flooded during rainy seasons.

However, nothing was allegedly done to protect workers until the Bank of Lisbon building caught fire.

“This is one area which government has neglected. But now we are acting, starting with the evacuation of the government buildings which were found to be noncompliant with the  Occupational Health and Safety Act and doing the same for the other buildings that we rent from the private sector,” Masebe said.