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Villagers await compensation in vain

as China Geo and Alliance Insurance wrangle

KANANELO BOLOETSE

LERIBE – Two giant companies, China Geo Engineering Corporation and Alliance Insurance, are at loggerheads over how much each should pay towards the M10 million that 35 Leribe families are demanding for damages to their homes caused by ongoing roadworks.

Massive ground vibrations caused by drilling and blasting during construction of the 40-kilometre Ha-Leshoele-Ha-Bane Road, have left some houses located near the road cracked and on the brink of collapse, resulting in untold daily suffering for affected families.

The construction of the arterial road was intended to, among others, reduce transport costs for the villagers and ease ferrying of agricultural produce for farmers who live in this highly fertile area.

China Geo – a Chinese state-owned construction firm contracted by the Lesotho government to construct the road – could in part be struggling to honour its obligations to the villages because of government’s failure to pay it on time.

A government audit of the capital budget’s progress for the current financial year commissioned by the ministry of development planning found that there was an outstanding payment of M70 million to China Geo and “outstanding payments of compensations as well as repair of properties affected” by the construction.

The direct cause of the neglect, according to Minister of Public Works and Transport Prince Maliehe, was a last-minute backtracking by Alliance Insurance which had initially committed to a M10 million payout “but later said it could only afford M2 million”.

Maliehe said a comprehensive insurance – protection against potential catastrophes during road construction – was a prerequisite for road construction tender bidding.

“After an assessment was made by all relevant bodies, it was agreed that compensation of all the affected families was going to cost M10 million. There was an undertaking on the part of the insurance to pay this money but after approximately 21 days, they backtracked and said they could only pay M2 million,” the minister said.

China Geo, according to Maliehe, lodged a complaint with the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) but “the two companies eventually agreed to settle the matter privately out of court with Alliance Insurance agreeing to pay M5 million”.

When contacted last week, CBL Stakeholder Relations Specialist – Corporate Communications officer Tebogo Senthebane said: “Indeed the complaint was received and has since been addressed. The two parties involved have reached an agreement.”

Ruan Song, China Geo’s country manager told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism last week that the company would “release an official statement” regarding compensation of the affected families “next week”.

Until then, Song said he was not going to respond to media queries regarding the same issue.

In response to the Centre’s follow-up questions this week, China Geo washed its hands of responsibility for the compensation and referred queries to the ministry of public works.

The ministry’s Principal Secretary Mothabathe Hlalele confirmed this week that China Geo and Alliance Insurance had a dispute, which led to the former lodging a complaint against the latter.

The Centre last week contacted Alliance Insurance and was referred to Moeketsi Lethale, head of short-term claims department.

Several attempts to draw a response from Lethale from last week were futile. He was said to be in meetings, did not return calls and did not respond to a message left at Alliance Insurance reception.

Maliehe further told the Centre last week that: “We are going to start the process of identifying affected families from the beginning because we do not want people to take advantage of this. Initially we believed that only 35 families had claimed for compensation but when I visited the villages, I learnt that actually more people were affected.

“The District Administrator (DA) of Leribe gave us an additional list. We have to merge the two lists and audit them. We are aware of the situation those people are living in but we have to make sure that only the people who deserve get compensated.”

Hlalele has also acknowledged the findings of the audit and confirmed that the ministry owed China Geo M70 million.

“We owe many contractors. Unpaid accounts stand at over M350 million,” Hlalele said.

The China Geo debt was also acknowledged by Maliehe who, however, emphasised that the “over M70 million owed to China Geo was not the cause of the delay in compensating affected families”.

Meanwhile, according to the area chief of Mathokoane, Ha-Peete, Chief Relutse Molapo, most cracked houses in the village could be attributed to tremors that were caused by blasting and movement of heavy equipment – bulldozers, cranes and excavators – during construction of the road.

“There is a grave concern by the villagers here that construction of the road caused damage to their homes. Some say the road is too close to their homes and that causes some discomfort as they fear that passing vehicles might crash into their houses,” Chief Molapo said.

“China Geo had promised to build the affected families new houses but up today we are still waiting. It has built houses for some people and we are expecting it to finish the job,” he added.

‘Malihanelo Lehlabaphiri, 67, a villager who lives with 10 grandchildren including a breastfeeding mother in a single room partitioned into two parts by a curtain, said the house started cracking during construction of the road.

“We went to report the matter to the chief and he referred us to the construction company. The construction workers came here, took pictures of the house and went away. They later came and promised that they are going to build a new house but they did not say when,” Lehlabaphiri said.

“Staying in this condition for people is not right, especially when there is a new-born in the house. When it rains, the water gets inside, floods the house and destroys the furniture,” she added.

Inside the yard, there was also a broken power pole and what was supposed to be an overhead power line, lay on the ground but with no live electric current.

Mpho Maipato, a 23-year-old new mother, said when “the wind is strong”, or when “a heavy vehicle passes on the road causing slight tremors”, the biggest worry was that the house would “collapse on us”.

Maipato said standing on the doorway: “The construction also left a heap of soil on the other side of the house, and water stagnates until it is absorbed into the house. It really is a mess.”

Some villagers walked up and down the road, seemingly unbothered and, on the face of it, unaware of the abnormal circumstances which construction of the road had placed their neighbours in.

One of the villagers happily drove a bullock cart in the road.

Sitting on the front of the two-wheeled cart drwan by two cows, the middle-aged man wearing a Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) T-shirt joyously posed for pictures.

But when asked, most of the villagers knew that many people were yet to be compensated. “Many people are crying. They have not been compensated,” the villager said.

The design and construction of the project was wholly funded by the government to the tune of approximately M535.5 million, according to the ministry of public works and transport’s Roads Directorate Department.

China Geo was contracted to upgrade the road to bitumen standard.

The project entailed the construction of a nine-metre wide pavement with paved shoulders of one-metre, construction of two big culverts and numerous small ones.

The works also included repair and protection of the bridge over Hlotse River. Other works included installation of road signage, guard rails and foot paths on some sections of the road and provision of road markings.

One of the villagers whose two houses were also allegedly destroyed by the construction indicated that only three families in the Ha-Peete were built new houses and she was not one of them.

“I am a single parent and have four children. Their father has died and they are worried where will they get another house as that father who built these two that were destroyed by the construction of the road is no longer alive,” said the 43-year-old ’Matiisetso Rakoto.

“At some point, the construction workers came here and dug a house foundation but left it unfinished saying they were redirected to build another house elsewhere.

“They left the foundation here open and unattended. I waited for almost four months but when they did not come back, and the foundation walls could no longer stand on their own and started caving in, I filled the foundation. It was a serious hazard,” said Rakoto.

Irked by the lack of progress in rebuilding their destroyed houses, the frustrated villagers have dashed in vain from pillar to post in a quest to get compensation.

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