An artist's impression of the Mtentu bridge
The Aveng Strabag joint venture (JV), responsible for building the R1.6-billion Mtentu bridge, in the Eastern Cape, has not returned to site following a three-month break as a result of violent community protests against the project.
The bridge forms part of the South African National Roads Agency Limited’s (Sanral’s) N2 Wild Coast road project.
When completed, the 1.1 km Mtentu bridge will be one of the longest main-span balanced cantilever bridges in the world, and will reach heights of around 220 m.
The project has been plagued by protests from surrounding communities, stating that they are unhappy with the number of jobs provided to them by Sanral.
The Mtentu bridge project is already roughly six months behind schedule.
“We can confirm that the Aveng Strabag JV...did not return to site to start work on Monday, 14 January 2019, after the suspension of works was lifted,” says Sanral southern region lead N2 Wild Coast road project manager Craig McLachlan.
“The main contractor has cited remaining safety concerns as the main reason for not returning to site yet.
“Sanral is currently engaging the main contractor to ensure that they return to site as soon as possible. The outcomes of the engagements with the Aveng Strabag JV will be provided as soon as they have been finalised.”
Work on the Mtentu north bridge site was suspended from October 22 last year, owing to violent community protests.
McLachlan says the N2 Wild Coast road political oversight committee, chaired by Eastern Cape Transport, Safety and Liaison MEC Weziwe Tikana, led negotiations to find a solution to the unrest.
Following what McLachlan calls “protracted negotiations with the community, the petitioners and other local stakeholders”, a resolution was reached on January 9, with "all parties" agreeing on a process to resolve the remaining issues.
“A process was also agreed on to address any future issues without stopping work, and it was resolved that…bridge construction could resume unhindered from Monday, 14 January, 2019.”
McLachlan says another outcome of the meeting was that a mobile police station would be established near the site to assist with security.
“All local stakeholders are now eager for the project to resume. Conditions around the site are peaceful,” says McLachlan.
Aveng Declares Force Majeure
It appears, however, that the Aveng Strabag JV does not share Sanral’s sentiments.
Aveng confirms that it has been “unable to work on the project site due to threats, unrest and protest action by the local community”, related to demands made against Sanral, as the employer of the Mtentu project.
“These events constitute a force majeure event under the contract.”
Aveng adds that the JV does not share the view – "and the view is also not supported by related recent events” – that the community engagement process has reached a stage where work can continue safely.
The JSE-listed engineering and construction group says it is conscious of the fact that disruption does sometimes occur on construction sites, but that the nature of the threats in this instance, as well as the level of unrest and protest action, are unprecedented.
“The construction of the Mtentu bridge is technically demanding and requires compliance with the most stringent international engineering and safety standards,” says the company.
“There is zero margin for disruptions of the nature experienced.
“With so much at stake the ability to execute works safely and in accordance with international best practice is, and must be, the primary concern. This represents a core value of both organisations in the [joint venture].
“The Aveng Strabag JV cannot resume the execution of the works in these circumstances. The Aveng Strabag JV simply cannot, and is not disposed to, risk the safety and wellbeing of its employees, and indeed the members of the community themselves.”
The Europe-based Strabag group referred all enquiries to Sanral.
McLachlan says Sanral has not received notice of the termination of the Mtentu contract from the JV.