The Chinese state-owned construction firm, China Geo-Engineering Corporation, has bungled road blasting at Letobong in the Botha Bothe district, causing major damage to houses and allegedly failing to repair them adequately.
This is the second controversy China Geo has been embroiled in over damage to houses caused by roadworks.
First incident was when China Geo and Alliance Insurance were involved in a compensation dispute in which 35 Leribe families demanded M10-million towards damages to their homes, caused by operations of the company.
The latest blasting was conducted as part of a controversially awarded M925-million tender to construct a road from Marakabei to Monontša.
This 60km road is meant to link Lesotho and Free State province of the neighbouring South Africa as a collector route for villages around the Botha Bothe and Leribe districts.
The Letobong villagers say the firm told owners of the houses along the roadside not to worry as their houses would not be affected.
However, the blasting caused permanent damage to five houses, and they said the company had failed to make meaningful repairs.
A Letobong miller, Thabo Masokolane, said he is forced out of business after a building he owned was destroyed, together with a workshop containing a maize master, a double roader hammer, and a compressor.
Masokolane said his machinery was not moved because the blasters assured him the building would not be affected. “If I knew, I could have insisted that my machinery be moved elsewhere,” he said.
The Inspector of Explosives at the Department of Mines, Moeketsi Lebitso, who inspected the China Geo’s blasting work at Letobong, told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that in his opinion the company “was extremely careless” and opted for a cheaper method of blasting.
It is the morning of August 17, 2019 and a day for road blasting.
China Geo asked ‘Maphali Mokuena and her fellow villagers in Letobong to take their animals to a safe place, about 2km from the village.
When blasting was done, villagers were called back to their homes. Mokuena was so upset by the damage to her house that she fainted.
She was treated for high blood pressure at a nearby clinic. “I learned from the clinic that my blood pressure shot sky high,” Mokuena told MNN.
A widowed Mokuena said that blasting had destroyed “what my husband worked for his entire life in the blink of an eye”.
“The explosion threw heavy rocks at my house, damaged the roofing and fell into the house, destroying furniture and leaving the floor and walls cracked,” Mokuena said, adding that her fence was also damaged and there had been no effort to repair it.
Masokolane, the miller, told MNN that he had last worked at his business a week before the blasting. He could not immediately return to business because the building was unusable.
Lebitso said China Geo could have avoided the damage by using the appropriate method of blasting for the rocks in the area.
“There is a specialised method of pre-splitting which could have been used. The method contains the blasting only in a particular area,” Lebitso said.
However, the method is costly. By cutting costs, China Geo had damaged houses and the business.
Lebitso said the company had submitted blast plans before starting the work, as well as reports after the blasting was completed.
For Lebitso, another reason for a flawed blasting was that China Geo’s experts were vetted based on their experience in blasting on dolerite while they blasted on sandstone at Letobong.
“Sandstone behaves differently from dolerite. Dolerite is gentler and does not cause many problems when blasted, but sandstone misbehaves,” he said.
MNN spoke to a China Geo official at the firm’s head office in Berea, who said they used the same blasting method at Letobong as in all their projects.
The official refused to give his name, saying that only the “director”, who had left for China on February 10 this year, could answer questions.
He said the director, who he declined to name, would be back in six months.
Questioned further about why one method of blasting for different rock formations, the official changed his story, saying: “Of course we do not use the same method, we use different explosives.”
The China Geo tender has also been controversial
Initially, the Chinese company was awarded the multimillion contract by the Ministry of Public Works “without following procurement regulations” according to local construction companies. The ministry described the award as “selective tendering” as there was no open tender process.
At an early stage in 2018, the tender was frustrated by protests from local construction companies, who accused the government of favouring Chinese firms over their local competitors.
The tender was then frozen after the Consortium of Lesotho Contractors, an association of 32 Basotho-owned construction companies, approached the ministry alleging a systematic bias in the award of construction tenders to Chinese companies.
The ministry was forced to open the tender for competition but the outcome still favoured China Geo.
In the Philippines, China Geo and another Chinese company, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, allegedly colluded with local companies to rig the bidding of road projects partly financed by international financing institutions, according to World Bank Investigative report in 2009.
The World Bank then barred China Geo and its Chinese partner for six and five years, respectively, from participating in projects financed by the bank.
Speaking to Sunday Express in 2018, the former principal secretary for the Ministry of Public Works, Mothabathe Hlalele said he was not aware that China Geo was once blacklisted by the World Bank.
In 2017 in Lesotho, China Geo was busted for preparing to drill at Ha-Seshote in Thaba-Tseka for blasting operations without a valid blasting licence, Lebitso told MNN.
When the department of mines inquired about the licence, Lebitso said the company produced ones from Zambia and China.
He said the matter escalated to the point where a high-ranking government office handed down an instruction that China Geo should not be given a tough time and should be left to work.
Lebitso promised to name the office but did not do so. He later said his office was satisfied that the company had enough experience and competent personnel to blast.
“They went on to get the blasting licence and we have issued them about five licenses – hence my certainty that they had a valid license in 2019,” added Lebitso.
Asked whether the company was penalised in 2017 for blasting without a licence, the firm’s unnamed official said “… that is a very long story that involved a lot of people”.
But he eventually said he was not aware that they had to apply for a local permit to blast in Lesotho.
Eighteen months later, MNN found that the Letobong villagers are still suffering the consequences of China Geo’s blasting.
Most of the houses, including those of ‘Mamokhethi Mokilibi and ‘Mateboho Hanese, still have cracked walls and foundations with porous roofing even after they were repaired by the Chinese company.
Masokolane has still not resumed business. The villagers complain that substandard repairs were carried out on Mokuena’s house and those of her neighbours who were affected by the blasting.
MNN was told that a day after the blasting, China Geo personnel arrived at Mokuena’s home with roofing material and started repairing the house, much to everyone’s surprise.
Mokuena said she was taken aback and questioned the immediate replacement of the roof “without proper assessment of the house and its structures”.
“When I interrogated this, the contractors told me that they knew what they were doing. The construction workers took the damaged wardrobes, chairs and couches and nailed them back together on the front porch,” she said.
Mokuena said she feared the house might cave in at any moment. “It is scarier when it is windy or raining heavily” she said.
According to Mokuena, local contractors advised that her house should be rebuilt from scratch due to the extent of the damage. However, China Geo only replaced the roofing and performed cosmetic repairs.
However, the China Geo’s official distanced the company from some of the damages saying “structures of some of the houses were already weak”.
“If they are unsatisfied with how their houses were fixed, and if the site office in Botha Bothe did not address their grievances, they are welcome to write a letter to the head office and they will be assisted”, he said.
Masokolane said China Geo had provided less compensation than he was previously earning from his business.
“They agreed to compensate me for loss of work, but refused the amount that I wanted which was in line with my income, and set their own amount” he said.
The firm’s official said China Geo was not responsible for determining compensation rates. This was the responsibility of their employer, the government.
According to Lebitso, Masokolane went out of his way to be difficult, refusing sites for the relocation of the mill and demanding that the contractor to “fix even equipment that were not damaged by the blasting”.
“He [Masokolane] could not produce financial statements of his business, so it was difficult for the contractor to determine how much his business was worth. The matter dragged on,” Lebitso said.
“I made over M60 000 per month from the mill alone,” Masokolane told MNN, adding that the business had fed his family and other dependents.
According to China Geo letter of 16 September last year, Masokolane is entitled to M89 250, calculated from 17 August 2019 to 11 August 2020.
In a letter to Masokolane three months later, China Geo agreed to pay an additional M11 200 towards the loss of work during the Covid lockdown.
“The contractor built a new milling structure for me but, because they didn’t consult me they scrambled the design and layout which was previously laid out to accommodate the direction of the air when milling,” Masokolane said.
More than two years ago, China Geo and Alliance Insurance company were involved in a compensation dispute in which 35 Leribe families demanded M10-million towards damages to their homes caused by the company road-building operations.
MNN was unable to establish whether this compensation was settled as Alliance responsible officials, Limakatso Mokobocho, Moeketsi Lethale and one Bereng did not respond to our emailed questions and our eventual calls despite repeated promises to do so.