Tongaat Mall inquiry off to a slow start as chair spots conflict of interest

2014-02-12 00:00

THE commission of inquiry into the collapsed Tongaat Mall came to a grinding halt yesterday when the presiding officer ruled there was a conflict of interest with the same lawyers representing the contractor, developer and employees.

This could set the stage for further delays in the inquiry today.

Gralio Precast — run by Durban businessman Jay Singh, who is at the centre of controversy although not directly implicated in the mall disaster — had arranged legal counsel for itself and its employee Ronnie Pillay, as well as for Singh’s son Ravi Jagadasan; for Singh’s wife Shireen Annamalay, for the health and safety consultant; and for the mall developer Rectangle Property Investments (owned by Jagadasan).

A large portion of the mall, comprising of three storeys meant for parking, came crashing down on November 19 last year, killing two people and injuring 29.

Chair of the inquiry Phumudzo Maphaha addressed Gralio’s appointed advocate, Saleem Khan, pointing out that he would have a conflict of interest.

“This is the first commission in which I have presided where this has happened. You are representing the employer, employee, the contractor and the developer. I find it challenging that the same group of attorneys represent multiple parties who will be implicating each other.

“Gralio [Precast] has taken the opportunity to represent everyone, which I want to iron out. This commission cannot have various parties represented by the same people. I am making a ruling on that. We all know how the game works,” said Maphala.

Khan said he did not see his representation of Pillay as a potential conflict of interest, but consented to Pillay being represented by the Department of Labour in the interest of “expediting this matter as quickly as possible”.

Just moments after accepting Pillay, the representative from Labour’s legal department, Liepollo Monaheng, requested that Lennie Samuel — who sits on the commission’s three- man panel — be removed, claiming his presence on the commission would prejudice Pillay.

“It was Samuel who initially took a statement from Pillay shortly after the mall collapse. He is privy to information. He must recuse himself from the commission,” said Monaheng.

Today Monaheng is expected to push this position although Maphaha is expected to largely resist.

It is believed Pillay’s testimony is key to understanding why the mall collapsed and ultimately who should be held responsible.

Pillay was interviewed the evening of the collapse and told The Witness that he had been standing at the edge of the top floor when it collapsed, forcing him to dive into an intermediate floor as the slab beneath his feet fell.

“I was falling, I dove underneath onto another platform,” Pillay had said.

Meanwhile, eThekwini Metro is expected to explain why it has yet to complete its structural engineer report into the collapse.

Gralio has netted over R2 billion in city contracts over the last decade and has in the past been accused of delivering sub-standard work.

The Manase Forensic Report commissioned by the province to interrogate low-cost housing projects in Durban and released last year found that building by Gralio was deemed “dangerous”. Singh, who spoke to The Witness just two weeks prior to the mall collapsing, denied the claim and challenged the veracity of the report.

The commission continues at the Tongaat municipal building from 9 am.

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