Entering murky waters

2010-07-19 00:00

TWO years after it was awarded, the R12,8 million Camps Drift canal dredging contract has been terminated. According to the Msunduzi Municipality, only 29% of the canal was dredged.

When the contract was awarded to former KZN Agriculture head Dr Jabulani Mjwara, The Witness asked if it was prudent to entrust such a large, technically challenging contract to a former civil servant who had resigned under a cloud for alleged maladministration.

Not to be outdone, procurement manager Francis Grantham (currently under suspension) took out an advert in the newspaper, at a cost of just over R7 000 of ratepayers’ money. In it he stated that the contractor’s technical expertise spanned “a total of approximately 100 years in the field of dredging and associated works”. However, there were no further details on how and when this 100 years’ worth of work was carried out.

We do know that the contractor, Planet Waves, teamed up with a sand mining company. Engineers pointed out at the time that sand mining is a different operation to dredging.

Grantham also patronisingly pointed out in his advert that the directors of the company were not the technical staff undertaking the day-to-day operations. “This is undertaken by suitably qualified engineers and artisans, as indicated in the proposal,” he said.

In retrospect and in light of Grantham’s words, it can be said that had the directors had more technical expertise to oversee the project, perhaps council would not be sitting with a terminated contract today.

As a member of the canoeing community so aptly stated: “It is silt under the bridge.”

But what about the crucial flood-prevention role that the dredging fulfils? The canal still has to be dredged and the municipality has no money. Will businesses in the area come to the rescue? What about the company OceanSpray, which was awarded the development contract for the Camps Drift Waterfront complex.

It involved developing Camps Drift into a waterfront entertainment area, complete with residential accommodation and an office park. Will OceanSpray pull out of the deal since the municipality has not dredged the canal? How will the company be able to sell prime waterfront sites when there’s a possibility that there’ll be more silt than water in the canal?

Longtime readers of The Witness may recall that OceanSpray itself came under the spotlight. Some of its owners were also directors of the company involved in the R85 million Ithala-funded Dolphin Whispers multi-storey building on Durban’s Point precinct. The developers ran into financial difficulty and liquidated the company.

OceanSpray directors were quick to point out that the two entities were separate and they were forging ahead with the Camps Drift project. There seems to be little or no movement on this front.

This is the tragedy of all these municipal messes in which millions of rand in taxpayers’ money is spent. Citizens are left carrying the can and the question remains: what happens now?

Back in 2004, The Witness published an exposé on the awarding of the municipal debt collection contract to friends and relatives of councillors and local ANC luminaries. When the municipality was put under administration and it was discovered that the city was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and was owed R500 million in outstanding debt, this came as no surprise.

The ability to tell the kind of stories described above is currently under threat because of the Protection of Information Bill that is currently before Parliament.

Investigative reporter Sam Sole says of the Bill: “It will allow every organ of the state, from government departments and parastatals to the smallest municipality to throw a blanket of secrecy over its documents.”

He says that even more draconian is that both whistleblowers and journalists can face criminal sanctions if caught quoting, dealing with or in possession of such documents. The Bill is a serious assault on the right of the public to be informed and the media to play its role as watchdog.

We’ve seen from both Msunduzi and uMngeni how officials can manipulate information. How much worse will it be when they have the freedom to cloak everything in secrecy? As citizens, whether we are in the canoe club or in a ratepayers’ association, in a business or religious organisation, we must lodge our protest when the Bill is put forward for public hearings. You don’t have to wait, written submissions can be made to the speaker of parliament and will be passed on to the ad hoc committee dealing with the Bill.

We simply cannot afford to have more taxpayers’ money squandered on incompetently administered tenders, leaving us to ask forlornly, “what happens now?”.



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