Mtentu Bridge project faces delays after contractors’ exit

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The Mtentu Bridge is set to knock the Bloukrans Bridge off the pedestal of being the highest bridge in South Africa and one of the highest in the world. Picture: Supplied
The Mtentu Bridge is set to knock the Bloukrans Bridge off the pedestal of being the highest bridge in South Africa and one of the highest in the world. Picture: Supplied

The building of the R1.6 billion Mtentu megabridge in the Eastern Cape faces significant delays following a decision by the builders to end their involvement in the venture.

This comes after European construction company Strabag and its South African partner in the joint venture, Aveng, terminated their contract with the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) to build the bridge, citing concerns over violent protests related to the project.

As a result, hundreds of people stand to lose work and a number of local subcontractors and suppliers will be affected.

The bridge, designed to be 1 132 metres long, forms part of the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road project.

Sanral spokesperson Vusi Mona said the roads agency would probably be forced to put the Mtentu Bridge project back out to tender, despite the procedural and contractual issues it still had to finalise with the exiting contractors. He said this could lead to further delays in getting the project back on track.

“It is likely that Sanral will be required to tender again to find a replacement contractor. Because of the complexity of the project, an extended tender period of at least five months will be required.

“To compile a new tender and go through the tender process, as well as to adjudicate, award, obtain the necessary labour permits, mobilise and establish the operation on site, will probably take at least a year. Legal issues may extend this period even further.”

Mtentu Bridge had a contractual completion date of May 2021. Now, says Sanral, the bridge is unlikely to be completed before the end of 2023. This may have a knock-on effect on the overall completion date of the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road’s greenfields section.

Sanral has also blamed the contractor for being behind schedule in starting the project in the first place.

Mona said that at this point, the Aveng-Strabag joint venture (ASJV) had only completed the access roads and started on some of the excavations for the bridge pier bases.

“The site was handed over to the ASJV in January 2018, with a 40-month construction period. However, by the end of October, when work on the bridge was halted – less than 10 months into the contract – the contractor was already more than six months behind schedule,” said Mona.

“This was largely because of a very slow start and because of the fact that the contractor had seemingly underestimated the time requirement and cost of constructing the access roads into the gorge to reach the bases of the 12 bridge piers.”

The ASJV’s decision to exit the project has resulted in a war of words and legal threats being exchanged with Sanral. Mona told City Press this week that the conflict was as a result of the contractor having “abandoned” site and, in effect, repudiating the contract.

The road agency had guarantees from the contractor amounting to about R270 million to cover any additional costs that might be incurred in completing the bridge.

“Should the additional costs exceed this amount, Sanral – on behalf of the government and taxpayers – has the option of instituting legal action against both parties for the additional cost,” said Mona.

He said that until a new contract could be awarded, it was not possible to determine how much the extra costs would be and whether these would amount to less than the guarantee.

Mona said that while the value of the actual work completed had still to be assessed by the engineers, the ASJV had been paid about R225 million to date, including for the establishment of the joint venture and for time-related costs.

Mona said 354 people were employed on site. Of these, 229 were employed from the local community.

But the ASJV hit back, saying it had lawfully terminated the Mtentu contract as a result of a “force majeure” clause in its contract – defined as unforeseen circumstances that result in a company being unable to fulfil a contractual obligation.

“The civil unrest, commotion, protests and threats of harm resulted in the ASJV being denied access to the site and denied the ability to safely continue the execution of the Mtentu River Bridge project,” said the contractor. “The decision to terminate had nothing to do with either of the ASJV members’ financial ability to perform their obligations.”

The ASJV denied that it had abandoned the project site or the Mtentu contract, adding that it would defend claims for damages in the event of Sanral laying such charges against it. It said it would be vindicated by the facts.

“The ASJV terminated the Mtentu contract, as it was entitled to do, on January 30 2019. Rather than dispute the right of the ASJV to terminate the contract and seek to enforce it, Sanral elected itself to terminate the Mtentu contract, claiming that the ASJV’s termination was unlawful. The Mtentu contract, which is now undisputedly terminated, does not provide for fines or penalties flowing from the termination.”

Unathi Binqose, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape’s transport, safety and liaison MEC, Weziwe Tikana, said: “The MEC is shocked by these developments. But it is now a matter beyond our hands.”

The Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a vocal group of protesters, said it welcomed the halt to the construction of the bridge. The ACC is opposed to the N2 Wild Coast Road traversing the Amadiba areas, believing it is a way to facilitate the mining of Xolobeni mineral deposits.

ACC spokesperson Nonhle Mbuthuma said the community had warned Sanral about promising people jobs and then giving the jobs to people from outside Jama – a village in the inland Amadiba area, Mbizana, affected by plans to build the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road. She said this was what led to the protests.

“Sanral must stop all works along the whole greenfield section of the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road right now. Sanral must start again and have a proper consultation process with all rural communities disturbed by the N2 project,” said Mbuthuma.

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