Pan-African HQ stuck in the mud

It has been six years since it was mooted, so parliamentarians have to meet at the nearby Gallagher Convention Centre.

The concept pictures show a building that fits snugly into landscaped hills. Tall windows draw the light in and a big, round central chamber filled with raked seats holds delegates.

But progress got as far as the large hole for the chamber, leaving a brown scar in the green strip next to the N1 highway.

The department of public works was in charge of the project, and appointed Stephan Frylink as the environmental consultant. The project was given the go-ahead based on his report, in which he said he could find no obstacles to construction.

But environmental groups soon objected that the site was in the middle of a wetland. The department of environmental affairs sent its enforcement officials in and appointed specialists to check. They all said excavation was happening in a wetland.

The case went to court and the department issued directives to stop construction in 2009. It was decided in court two years later, where Frylink lost and was fined R160 000. After the decision, the department said that the consultant had “provided information which specifically indicated that there was no wetland on the site”. The department had given the go-ahead for development because it trusted his “objective, professional and honest opinion”.

Two sections of the law had been broken – more than five cubic metres of earth had been moved in a wetland, and building had commenced within 32m of a stream whose flood line was unknown.

With the consultant dealt with, the environmental affairs department told the public works department that a fine of R1-million could be imposed. But it did provide a reprieve, in terms of Section 24G of the National Environmental Management Act. This allows authorisation to be given retrospectively for a development if the guilty party does another environmental impact assessment. The environmental affairs department can then decide to allow the construction to go ahead.

Paul Fairall, an environmental consultant who first alerted the department to the transgression, said no one knows what the next steps will be. “The vast void is just lying there, with R12.5-million worth of sand and gravel doing nothing.”

The public works department had complied with the first parts of Section 24G. Measures were put in place to stop any materials from the site leaking into the wetland. They had survived three season of heavy rainfall, but the restraints were not being maintained and could collapse, Fairall said.

Work on the preventative measures stopped when public works had to undertake public consultations as part of the impact assessment. “Public works had started all this work to rectify what they had done, and then just stopped for no reason,” Fairall said. He said this was normal for construction where the government was involved: “Enforcement is quick to hit the public. But the government won’t comply with environmental legislation.”

Judith Taylor, the head of Earthlife Africa in Gauteng, said she could not provide any new information about the project. “Construction was stopped with the court case, but since then nothing has happened at the site.”

The departments of public works and environmental affairs had not responded to questions sent to them by the time of going to press.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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