Mtentu River bridge stopped in its tracks


A construction project that would have amounted to an engineering marvel appears to be crumbling into nothing after local build consortium Aveng and its Austrian partner, Strabag, formally gave notice that they would be withdrawing from erecting a bridge across the Mtentu River gorge in the Eastern Cape.

At a length of 1.1km and a height of 220m the high-span cantilever bridge would have been the highest and longest of its kind and would have represented an anomaly of sorts, situated as it is in one of the most undeveloped places in South Africa.

As a vital link in the proposed N2 Wild Coast Road, it would make for an impressive expression of industrial intent in an area where no logistical network exists and attempted mining exploration of high-concentrate titanium deposits has provoked the ire of locals living off the land.

Most of the Pondo people living in this area known as Xolobeni have for long resisted economic development in its community, claiming that it would destroy its permacultural way of life.

Last year the construction of approach roads and ramps by the Aveng-Strabag Joint Venture (ASJV) so that work on the bridge could proceed was brought to a standstill by violent protests in the area.

National road agency Sanral told FTW Online (http://www.ftwonline.co.za/article/181579/Army-of-security-guards-keep-watch-as-controversial-EC-road-project-goes-ahead) at the time that it was forging ahead with construction despite community opposition.

It said that the road was there to bring prosperity to a part of South Africa rife with poverty and unemployment.

But resistance to the Mtentu bridge finally brought work to a standstill on October 22 after ASJV claimed the volatile atmosphere was out of sync with international safety standards and that the security of the bridge’s workforce could not be guaranteed.

Additional security measures tentatively led to an undertaking by ASJV to Sanral that it would resume work on the bridge in mid-January, but continued delay and prevarication finally led to formal notification that they were withdrawing from the project.

According to ASJV it’s still not safe enough to resume construction.

Sanral, however, with heavily armed security personnel on hand, has said that all necessary precaution has been taken to ensure that work on the bridge can go ahead.

And now Sanral claims that ASJV’s withdrawal from the project is really rooted in Aveng’s dire finances, a claim that appears to carry water considering the company’s current attempted disposal of its loss-making construction subsidiary, Grinaker-LTA, and its JSE stock price that has fallen from R70 in 2008 to 5c a share currently.

ASJV has attempted to appease Sanral, stating two separate termination guarantees of R245.1 million and R81.1 million, effectively performance and money retention pay-backs in the road agency’s favour.

But Sanral has threatened to institute construction stoppage penalties that, if successful, could shut the door on Aveng which is battling to prop up balance sheets that have lost 99% of its value.

So far the only winners since the Mtentu project ground to a halt are the activists resisting the bridge, environmentally driven protesters who say that a road so close to the Wild Coast shore will irreparably alter one of the country’s last, untouched environments.


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