/ 4 December 2020

Construction sites are a ‘death trap’

Drowning Site 8912 Dv
The site where Tshiamo Hleza died

The residents of Hammanskraal extension 10, north of Pretoria — where a young boy drowned after falling into a trench that was left open by a construction company — fear that many more deaths and accidents may occur because of the firm’s alleged negligence.

Nine-year-old Tshiamo Hleza died last week after falling and drowning in a 3m-deep hole that had been left open by Khato Civils. The City of Tshwane appointed the construction company to install bulk water, sewer services and internal water reticulation in the shack settlement. The boy slipped and fell into the trench after  a weekend of heavy rains. 

When the Mail & Guardian visited the area this week, residents spoke of their fear of another tragic incident; even though the trenches had been closed after Tshiamo drowned, the site had become a “death trap” mainly because of the rainy season. 

But this is not the first time Khato Civils has been linked to the death of a child on its construction sites.

Last year in Giyani, Limpopo, six-year-old Nsuku Mhlongo died after drowning in a trench that had been dug by Khato Civils. The construction company was contracted to provide the infrastructure for water to more than 50 villages in Giyani. 

Khato’s chief executive, Mongezi Mnyani, told the M&G last year that the construction company donated R50 000 to the Mhlongo family and assisted with the funeral. However, Mnyani told the M&G this week that Khato Civils was not responsible for the Giyani incident. He said when Nsuku died, the company was no longer on site and, when it left, all security measures were in place. 

The M&G sent questions to Lepelle Northern Water, which was the implementing agent in the Giyani water project, about who was held liable for Nsuku’s death but the company did not respond to questions. 

In the case of Hammanskraal, Mnyani disputed the residents’ version that the trenches were covered only on the day Tshiamo died. He said all manholes and open trenches were closed. 

However, in the same breath, Mnyani said the site construction manager was found to have been negligent and had failed to ensure that the site was well secured, even though he had been asked to do so on three occasions. “Our company has completed its preliminary investigations and we have found that the construction manager failed to secure the safety of the site, despite having been instructed to do so. The company has suspended the site construction manager and he was charged with gross negligence and gross dishonesty,” Mnyani said. 

He said the hearing was concluded on Wednesday and the company awaits a full report from the independent chair of the disciplinary proceedings. 

There appears to be an ongoing trend of negligence at construction sites. On the weekend before the death of Tshiamo, again in Hammanskraal, three boys also died after falling into a trench in a stormwater drainage construction site. 

The M&G contacted Vea Road Maintenance and Civils this week, the company responsible for the construction site. One of the company’s directors, Marno Nel, said he could not comment and referred the questions to the site manager, Zama Kokela, who could not be reached. 

The City of Tshwane also failed to respond to questions on whether any legal action has been taken against the construction companies as mayor Randall Williams had indicated, and whether the city had conducted its own investigation into the incident of the four boys who died in Hammanskraal at construction sites.

Regulations are unambiguous on the safety precautions that must be adhered to on construction sites. 

Where excavation is concerned, a contractor must take reasonable and sufficient steps to prevent any person from being buried or trapped by a fall or material being dislodged. For instance, if a structure or a road is affected by the excavation or is close to a public area (as in the case of Hammanskraal extension 10), the contractor must erect a barrier or  fence of at least 1m in height. Visible boundary indicators must also be erected when visibility is poor. 

Water pipes left on the side of the road.

According to the regulations, any person who does not comply is guilty of an offence and can be sentenced to pay a fine or be jailed for a year.

The acting spokesperson for the department of labour, Musa Zondi, said it was aware that children died last week on construction sites in Hammanskraal. The department was investigating the incidents and a dossier would be given to the National Prosecuting Authority to decide whether to prosecute.

Meanwhile, in Hammanskraal, people living near where Tshiamo died still have mounds of soil in front of their doorsteps. 

Those who spoke to the M&G said that Khato Civils had not erected any construction safety nets around the trenches the company had dug until after Tshiamo’s death.  

Mothers spoke of living in constant panic. “I have a small child, and when I could not see her for a second I would frantically search because I was scared that she might have fallen in one of the holes,” said a woman who did not want to be named.

The young mother told the M&G that there was an uncovered hole right behind her shack. and that she couldn’t let her children out of her sight. 

But, even with the holes now covered, the residents are still concerned, because the heaps of soil left everywhere by the construction are causing mudslides, and access to some yards and streets is near impossible on foot or by car.

“The other day, I witnessed a lady who was stuck in the mud, up to her knees. People had to help out. Imagine when it starts raining hard — it means we will be trapped in our homes,” said Stanley Mmekwa. 

“It is December now: the construction company is going to close for the holidays and leave us with this mess. People will not be able to have their families come over for Christmas because no car can drive in here. What happens when a person gets trapped in the mud at night, and there is no one to help pull them out? That person will die. All of this is nonsense and frustrating.”

Other residents said trenches had been dug next to their shacks and when it rained water came into their homes. 

“I am even scared to sleep at night, because I might wake up with my shack having been swept off by water,” said Richard Mashele.