'There's no danger here'

2013-11-21 00:00

ONLY months before this week’s Tongaat mall tragedy, the centre’s owner claimed before court that there was no danger to anyone on the site — and that eThekwini had promised to “fast-track” his plans.

But, The Witness can reveal that according to court papers, the mall was so far outside the law that in March this year, city building inspector Cyril Dube had no idea that it was even a shopping centre.

On Tuesday afternoon, the three storeys of the mall spanning half a soccer field, suddenly collapsed, trapping at least 30 construction workers.

One woman died, one person is missing and 29 workers were injured.

Yesterday, an excavator worked its way through the rubble and search and rescue personnel were hoping this would reveal if there were more survivors or bodies under the rubble.

The Witness has obtained an August affidavit by Ravi Jagadasan, the director of Rectangle Investments, which owns the mall, filed in response to eThekwini’s application to halt all work on the site.

Jagadasan is the son of “Jay” Singh, a controversial Durban tycoon linked to Gralio Properties carrying out construction at the site.

In his affidavit, Jagadasan claimed the city had given a “verbal” agreement that the needed permission would be “fast-tracked” at the municipality.

“[The city] is fully aware, or ought to be, that a process is underway to fast-track the necessary approvals for the development,” he said.

“There is no danger to the members of the public or any other persons in relation to this project,” Jagadasan said.

The court application followed city inspector Dube ordering the developer to cease all building at the mall on April 8 — a “stop order” that the company, Gralio Properties, ignored.

A third inspection of the site on July 3 found that building was continuing “in blatant contravention” of the law.

In his affidavit, Jagadasan claimed to have signed up 35 tenants, including anchor brands like Virgin Active, Absa and Clicks.

Jagadasan claimed that even the King Shaka International airport had no approved building plans to date.

“It is not uncommon in developments of this nature for developers to get fast-tracked approval from the applicant to proceed with construction after approval of its plans at the pre-scrutiny stage of its plans,” he said.

Jagadasan claims the approval for the earthworks was obtained, stamped and granted on March 1, 2013. The Witness has a copy of this.

“It is common that the council allows developers to proceed to build commercial buildings without approved plans. I am advised that King Shaka Airport does not have approved building plans to date.

“It is unfair and unlawful for the respondent to be treated differently,” he said.

Jagadasan said building plans had been submitted and were being processed by the council.

Last week, The Witness revealed that the city gave companies linked to Singh’s family R585 million in contracts from which they have built an empire. It now comprises bus companies, a mine, housing construction, retail stores, earth-moving equipment hire — and a private mall.

Clear warning signs of a looming catastrophe at the mall included:

•The companies controlled by Jay Singh began construction of the Tongaat mall in late 2012 with no approved plans except for “earthworks”, and no environmental impact assessment (EIA). Court papers confirm there was no permission whatsoever — or even an application — for the entire 15 000-square-metre structure, and a garage for 733 parking bays;

•Just two weeks ago, concerned residents and Cope councillor Steven Naidoo confronted the head of town planning at eThekwini municipality — “demanding they stop the construction due to clear safety hazards, and that they produce a plan and an EIA”.

•Despite at least four site visits by city building inspectors this year — which simply revealed that Singh’s company was illegally continuing to build — court papers lodged by eThekwini municipality admit that, by July 26, the city had “no knowledge of the state of the buildings or whether such structures are being constructed in accordance with safety standards”.

•An official with Transnet, Ernest Kettle, said he warned city officials of a “safety hazard” last month — after discovering the mall violated boundary regulations by being built just eight metres from the railway line, rather than the minimum of 17,4 metres allowed. Kettle said the mall also posed a potential threat to train passengers, as storm water run-off could compromise the rail bed, and said Gralio could provide no EIA. Trans­net launched an investigation.

•In March, councillor Brian Janayathan challenged council to stop continued construction of the mall. “I even said publicly that this site was blatantly violating bylaws, but nothing was done.”

Attempts to get comment from Singh, Jagadasan or their representatives were unsuccessful yesterday.

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