Journalist. Writer. Researcher. Editor.

Watching R17-million crumble – the Vukani housing project

Published in the Grocott’s Mail on September 29, 2009.

The houses of the R17-million Vukani housing project were not built according to the national Norms and Standards for housing. This was a decision that was made in 2000 by the Makana municipal council, despite objections by the City Engineer, Terry Horner, and the national housing board.

In December 1998 Vukani was approved by the provincial housing board, and in August 1999 the Makana council appointed Monkupe Developers and Contractors as the developer for the project. By June 2000 however, the contractor had informed the municipality that they would not be able to provide full services for the homes and build them at the required 40m2. The national subsidy for low-cost housing is R16 000 for houses of only 30m2. Operations Manager for Monkupe, Robert Brotchie, met with several municipal officials regarding this situation and in a letter to the city secretary, Charl Malan, stated that a “deadlock was reached regarding levels of service”, and that as a result “the project has been thrown into a crisis which has to be resolved as a matter of extreme urgency if the project is to proceed”. Brotchie proposed to forgo roads leading to the plots in order to build the 40m2 homes.

The reason for this deadlock is because the then National Norms and Standards for housing were in direct opposition to some policies enforced by the then MEC of Housing for the Eastern Cape, Gugile Nkwinti, who has now been appointed as the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform under President Jacob Zuma’s administration. During a visit to the Makana council on 26 June 2000, Nkwinti made several statements which “were in conflict with the National Norms and Standards” according to a letter written by the then town clerk, Steven Cridland, to the Provincial Housing Board (PHB) secretariat. “Despite protestations to the MEC by the City Engineer, the MEC assured the community that the engineer was incorrect, that a 40m2 top structure was non-negotiable,” wrote Cridland. This was confirmed by Kaiser Nxamleko, a senior official at the Makana housing department. Horner had contacted the national housing board, who then said that the services “cannot be compromised and that the top structure should be adjusted downwards to accommodate the services,” wrote Cridland.

This letter and other correspondences between Makana and Monkupe were brought up in a meeting between Monkupe and the Transitional Local Council (TLC) and the Vukani Joint Steering Committee (JSC) on August 7, 2000. “The community has pronounced long, long ago to say that they want 40m2 houses … and the community has also agreed that you forgo roads… The community has agreed to that,” then Mayor Likhaya Ngqezana is quoted as saying in meeting minutes. “The town clerk [Steven Cridland] can shake his head, I know what I am talking about”. Ngqezana also insulted Democratic Alliance proportional councillor Michael Whisson in his absence from the meeting, referring to him as “the old man” while questioning a previous allegation from Whisson that Monkupe was not registered as a closed corporation. This is a critical requirement for being awarded a housing contract. The mayor accused them of trying to derail the housing project for political gain. “What is their concealed agenda, they must pronounce very clearly, come Mr Horner, Mr Malan [the City Secretary] and Mr Cridland. We cannot be sabotaged here,” he said. He further proposed that all three of these municipal officials be faced with disciplinary hearings. According to Horner, Ngqezana “politically rode roughshod over the officials” during the meeting. “We just needed clarification on a couple of outstanding matters that concern us. Certainly, we did not have agendas attached to it all,” Cridland said during the meeting. The meeting eventually fell apart, with Ngqezana again calling for disciplinary action against Cridland, Horner and Malan, saying that the meeting “is not a defence vehicle”.

It was eventually resolved in this meeting that “Council not entertain the opinion sought by the City Engineer from the Director-General of National Housing because the City Engineer was not mandated nor authorised by Council to obtain an opinion from the Director-General”. This was despite objections from Horner that the MEC cannot overrule the directives of the housing minister with regards to the National Norms and Standards. “No mayor would have gotten me to do something illegal with regard to national housing,” said Horner in a recent interview.

“They should have compromised the sizes of the houses rather than the services,” said Nxamleko. “[The community] accepted something inferior, and Council never should have allowed this.”

According to Nxamleko, the contract between Monkupe Developers and Contractors and the Provincial Housing Board was ended in July 2002 due to a dispute between the two, which resulted in them both agreeing that the contract should be terminated. Whisson however, believes the company went bankrupt, and with that the money that they were given “vanished”. This could not be confirmed during the course of Grocott’s Mail’s investigation. “We then said to province that we are the victims in this circumstance,” said Nxamleko, and the municipality re-applied for funding for the housing project. This was awarded, and five contractors competed for tender for the Vukani housing project. The contractors made their presentations to a Special Land, Housing and Infrastructural Development Committee in December 2002, and by April 2003 Maxam Construction had signed a contract with Makana municipality and took over as the new developers of the project.

Maxam Construction has been involved as a contractor for several other problematic housing projects in the region, namely Mayfield 1 and Harmony Park, a project in the neighbouring Ndlambe Municipality. Both of these housing projects have experienced problems such as cracked walls, cracked roof sheets, loose walls, and roads which are rendered impassable when it is raining.

The inferiority of the Vukani houses is not only reflected in the lack of adequate roads to the properties, but also by the many structural defects of the homes. For example, several of the homes appear to be missing lintels, the horizontal beam or structure above a window or door opening that supports the roof. In the case of Vukani, U-blocks were used. These are hollow, u-shaped blocks that are lined-up at window-head height and filled with concrete strengthened by a metal rod. According to Clive Christian, the current Control Building Officer at the municipality’s engineering department, the houses had U-blocks right around the structure on the outside walls. When Grocott’s Mail spoke to the administration manager at Rhodes Estates Division, Andy Hatting, he was shown some photographs illustrating the loose bricks over doorways of Vukani houses. Hatting immediately said that there are clearly no lintels in those walls, and if there had been all those cracks would have been avoided.

This was confirmed by Billy Krige, the Control Building Officer (CBO) during the construction of the Vukani project. It is the responsibility of the CBO to sign off on the houses, ensuring that they are of an acceptable standard. However, Krige blames a lack of finances for the shoddy workmanship of the houses. “We were given about R12 000 to build a 40m2 house, and that’s roughly R300 per m2. Conventional building costs about R3000 per m2, so we had to work with about 12% of normal building costs,” he said.

Krige also did not seem to believe the extent to which the houses had been damaged, despite that in 2006 the municipal council hired his consultation firm, BAM Project Consultants, to evaluate the damage to the houses. The firm found that there were several instances of severe structural damage. “Well, I haven’t seen the houses in four years,” he said. He says he was also unaware that in 2006 the municipal council had resolved that Maxam Construction should repair a list of defects, including “corner joint cracks”, “loose blocks above windows and doors” and “cracked roof sheets”. In what seems to be a memorandum to the Department of Technical and Infrastructural Services regarding some resolutions made by the council in a meeting in November 2006, it says that Maxam Construction will be “given a maximum of three months to fix all the defects” as they are listed in detail the document. Grocott’s Mail was unable to contact Maxam Construction to enquire whether they knew about this council resolution and whether they had re-visited the project, but after surveying the houses, it seems that this was not the case. There were also several counts of vandalism listed in the assessment report by BAM Project Consultants, and it is in relation to such problems that Krige believes that the housing beneficiaries of Vukani and similar projects are to blame for damage to their homes. “If I have a crack in my house I fix it. But they just leave it to get worse,” said Krige about the often unemployed and poor beneficiaries.

“My biggest concern is education. These people do not know how to look after their homes,” said Krige. Grocott’s Mail then asked Krige about structural problems of the homes, such as the flawed roofing design used which means that the roof is comprised of three overlapping parts on the crest of the roof, allowing wind and rain to blow in through the openings. “They must also try to get someone to do something,” said Krige. “I know, I have the same problem [with the rain] in my holiday home”.