By Sheila Berry
The first public participation meeting for the proposed iMfolozi bridge was held at the Mkhwanazi Traditional Council Chambers, Somkhele, at 9h00 on Thursday, 27 October 2016. The bridge is being commissioned by the Department of Transport (DoT), after being requested by Cllr. F. M. Mathe, and investigated by Mr S.S. Nkosi, KZN DoT Senior General Manager.
The male dominated meeting was attended by about 35 people. The majority of those present supported the bridge and quite a lot of discussion focussed on ensuring local contractors are included in the project.
Concerns raised related to the low number of Esiyembeni residents at the meeting, particularly the lack of women. The project was supposedly requested by members of the Esiyembeni and Novunula communities, so where were all the Esiyembeni residents and why are so many of them unaware of the bridge proposal? At least one influential Esiyembeni leader who was at the meeting agreed that residents have not been informed about the bridge and that this situation needs to be rectified.
The lack of congruence between the purported motivation for the bridge, namely a response to a request from two communities to be linked, and the actual situation on the ground, where the majority of residents in both communities know nothing about the proposed bridge, has made many people suspicious. It is highly unlikely the government will spend R91-million to create a bridge to link two rural communities. People are wondering who is behind the push for the bridge and what is the real intention for its use that is being hidden behind this story.
The residents wanted a bridge more that 8 years ago, before Mtubatuba became a thriving village with many facilities previously only available in Mpangeni. The communities’ need for this bridge is no longer a priority. There are other bridges, like the crossing over the Mvamanzi river, that are more important if the primary objective of the DoT is to respond to the needs of the Fuleni and Somkhele people.
A major concern is that the proposed double lane bridge, with its pedestrian walkway, will be used as a short cut to Richards Bay by coal trucks from Somkhele wanting to avoid the new Eteza weighbridge.
The consultant explained that the Department of Transport has taken a policy decision to construct all bridges to the same specifications. He said he doubted Somkhele mine would send its trucks via the proposed bridge and along gravel roads to Richards Bay but he went on to say that it was a public bridge and consequently all vehicles that wanted to use the bridge would have free access. Once it was constructed, no one would be able to restrict whosoever wanted to use the bridge.
The meeting lasted much longer than the consultants had anticipated and only ended at 10h35 while the Fuleni meeting at the KwaMthethwa Traditional Council Chambers, well over an hour away, was expected to start at 11h00!
A bus load of over 100 people from Novunula, Ocilwane and Ntuthunga 1, were waiting for the consultants at the advertised venue. At least 50% were women.
There is strong opposition to the bridge in Fuleni from distrust that has built up because of the lack of transparency and engagement with the directly affected communities to inform them of plans to construct the proposed bridge, and misrepresentations in the supporting documents.
At some point, the consultants, Royal HaskoningDHV & Impumelelo Consulting, made the decision to go to the chief’s house in Fuleni and not to the advertised venue. One wonders who or what persuaded them to make this change without communicating anything to registered I&APs and the Fuleni residents who were gathered and waiting at the advertised venue.
When the consultants eventually arrived at the KwaMthethwa Traditional Council Chambers shortly before 13h00 and wanted people to compete the attendance register, they were strongly challenged. They were told that, in terms of the legislation for public participation meetings, whatever had taken place at the iNkosi’s homestead did not classify as a public meeting and should be considered null and void. The I&APs demanded that the consultants call another public participation meeting in Novunula or Ocilwane to ensure residents from directly affected communities are able to attend. The consultants agreed to organise another meeting but requested protection.
A follow-up letter of complaint will be sent to the consultants with the demand for a proper follow-up public participation meeting paid for by the consultants.