MOKHOTLONG – Despite spending over M400 million reconstructing a 79-kilometre stretch of road between Oxbow and Mapholaneng some two years ago, government plans to preserve and prevent its premature deterioration have foundered.
Although the road appears to be in fair condition the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism recently learnt of early signs of surface defects at around Mahlasela Pass in the Maloti mountains, even before it has been officially handed over to the government.
The developing cracks at Mahlasela are threatening to constrain mobility on this road which makes a crucial contribution to the country’s economic development and growth.
Reaching a height of 3222 metres above sea level, Mahlasela is one of the two passes that link the districts of Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong – home to the highest-elevated diamond mine in the world, Letšeng Diamonds.
Mahlasela is considered the highest pass in southern Africa.
Owned by the London-listed Gem Diamonds and the Lesotho government, Letšeng is the highest dollar per carat kimberlite diamond mine in the world. It is Lesotho’s most successful diamond mine operation.
In May, the mine recovered a 115-carat top white colour Type IIa diamond, which was the ninth diamond of over 100 carats recovered this year alone, already exceeding the total number of diamonds of over 100 carats recovered in 2017.
Other potentially viable diamond mines, namely; Kao and Liqhobong, operate within the same area.
Now, an audit commissioned by the ministry of development planning found that the contractor, CMC di Ravenna – Lesotho branch, had suspended works because it was owed by the ministry of public works and transport and had “demobilised from the site”.
The government audit also found that: “The project currently continues to accumulate interest on unpaid amount. Therefore, these delays have additional costs, hence increased the contract value.”
Ministry of Public Works and Transport Principal Secretary (PS) Mothabathe Hlalele has confirmed to the Centre that government owed CMC di Ravenna M27 million which has since ballooned to around M40 million.
“We owe them. The ministry is however doing everything in its power to ensure that it settles the bill,” Hlalele said without detailing the work being done to improve the public works ministry’s record of settling its bills and institute a culture of payment.
M452 million was budgeted for reconstruction of the road.
Hlalele also admitted in an interview with the Centre that the ministry owed “many contractors”, the mounting unpaid balances of which stood at over M350 million.
“There is no particular reason that one can give for not paying except to say the ministry’s capital budget has significantly decreased in the last four financial years.
“We needed a M3 billion real budget for the current financial year for the Roads Directorate department alone, but the approved budget for the whole ministry is around M400 million from which the Roads Directorate will get M300,” he said.
The M300 million, Hlalele further indicated, was “way lesser than what the ministry currently owes to contractors who have already completed various construction projects”.
On Tuesday this week, he indicated that his ministry had some disagreements with CMC di Ravenna over some construction faults on the road which government wanted fixed before the project could be declared complete.
The existence of faults was also confirmed by the company’s former workers who asked to remain anonymous.
They indicated that it seemed the original design was not suitable for the project road crisscrossing the mountainous region where wet conditions are prevalent due to heavy rainfall and snowfall.
They said they faced some challenges and difficulties while constructing the road which passes through the mostly frost prone swathes.
“Mahlasela is located at high altitude and we experienced sub-zero temperatures there. Apart from its mountainous nature, the climatic conditions at that area are very harsh and snow covers the whole land for most part of the year.
“That place also has a lot of surface and sub-surface water. Construction at that particular area was very complex, that is why the road is deteriorating fast and has developed some longitudinal and transverse cracks and potholes,” one of them said.
“It was going to be costly to modify original design to take into account specific requirements of the area,” the other one added.
CMC di Ravenna did not respond to detailed questions sent to them on Monday.
It is an Italian construction company founded in Ravenna in 1901 and has been permanently operating overseas since 1975 with branches in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and in several other countries. Sixty-five percent of its revenue comes from work outside Italy.
Its 2017 consolidated annual turnover amounted to 1,118.9 million euros (over M19 billion), almost equivalent to Lesotho’s total national expenditure estimates for 2018/2019 financial year which amounted to M19.8 billion according to the Citizens’ Guide to the 208/2019 Budget, published by the ministry of finance in February this year.