Bloemfontein – Two years ago the tourism industry in the northern Drakensberg issued a communal sigh of relief when it saw the dilapidated R74 road between Harrismith and the Oliviershoek Pass being repaired.
Little did they know that this would be the beginning of a nightmare that would eventually cause the closure of at least two businesses, visitor numbers would halve and scores of jobs would be lost.
Meanwhile fingers are being pointed back and forth between the liquidated contractor, Sanyati Civil Engineering & Construction (SCE&C), and the Free State provincial government regarding who is responsible for traffic control on the road where construction has stood still for many months.
Staff who should be helping to direct the traffic at stop-and-ride points have not come on duty since the end of last month.
Sanyati got into trouble after a number of state departments failed to pay for finished contracts worth R70m.
These include work on the Oliviershoek Pass at Harrismith. This road is the gateway to the northern Drakensberg and the uKhahlamba world heritage site. From KwaZulu-Natal the road are negotiable, but the section of the R74 that runs from Harrismith past the Sterkfontein Dam is in a deplorable condition after repairs were stopped halfway.
Visitors from the Free State, Gauteng and North West, who together generate a significant portion of the area’s revenue, now have to take a 160km detour back and forth via the N3 and pay R100 in toll fees.
Owners of the scores of tourism enterprises and farmers in the area last week said they had been brought to their knees because of the Free State provincial government’s 18-month delay in rectifying the situation.
This project is one of 23 road-building projects awarded by the Free State government, but put to a halt by national government because of procedural irregularities.
Without exception, businesses in the Oliviershoek Pass environment have had to release workers or adjust labour contracts so that workers work fewer hours and get paid less.
Several organisations are training centres for tourism students and these projects have also suffered a heavy blow.
Andrew Cloete, the owner of a couple of tourism businesses in the area, including Caterpillar Catfish, a guest house on the crest of the Oliviershoek Pass, says he was obliged to close the enterprise down at the end of June.
“We lost all local business from Harrismith, as well as the mountain bike tourists. We had to dismiss 10 of our 29 workers and the rest are now working a half day.”
Christopher Mumby, owner of the well-known Little Switzerland resort near Harrismith, has also closed the hotel’s doors because of the impassable R74 – and he had to dismiss 115 workers.
Petré Theron, manager of the ATKV holiday resort Drakensville, says the resort with its 72 chalets and 81 caravan sites is suffering a huge loss.
“Up to 70% of our visitors come from the interior and, since the condition of the road deteriorated, occupancy has declined to an average of only 45% a year.”
A potato farm at the lower end of the Oliviershoek Pass this year decided not to plant anything. Emile Steyn, a trustee of the FD Steyn Trust, which had leased the land to the potato farmer, says the contract was not renewed because the farmer did not see his way clear to get tractors and equipment from Harrismith, transport 120 temporary workers along this road every day and eventually take the potatoes by truck to the markets.
“It's inconceivable that the decisions and actions of such a small group could lead to such great losses of income and jobs for those who need them the most,” says Steyn.
Last week the Free State Department of Roads, Police and Transport declined to respond to specific questions as to who should safeguard the R74 and even whether the department was embroiled in a dispute with Sanyati.
The department said it would appreciate the media affording it space to finalise the process of negotiating with contractors.
The issue is between the department and the contractors, said departmental spokesperson Zolile Walaza.
The Free State department of finance simply referred questions about available funds to the roads department.
In March Butana Komphela, Free State transport MEC, said in his budget speech that they had experienced a painful period because of the 23 roads, but a turning point had been reached and the dark past had been left behind.
Now, months later, no light is apparent for the hard-pressed tourism and agriculture industry of the northern Drakensberg.
In a media statement earlier this month regarding the state of the R74 Grace Mentz, acting chief director for roads in the Free State, said that the contractor, Sanayti, remained responsible for traffic control and the safety of motorists using the road.
No-one at Sanyati was willing to comment. A former project manager, now working at another firm following the liquidation and who did not wish to be named, said that at the end of June he had written a letter to the Free State roads department to inform it that because of the liquidation, Sanyati could no longer manage traffic on the road.
“The contractor closed the road and people moving past the closures do so at their own risk.”
Another former manager points out that for two years the company had manned the control points without being paid “out of common decency and a sense of responsibility”.
A high official in the Free State roads department – on condition his name was not mentioned – said this was untrue; the department had paid for traffic control and had tried to do the maintenance itself, but once the project had been handed to a service provider the department cannot work on it itself. The work has therefore to be stopped.
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