South Africa

Asbestos Housing Project

Ace Magashule appears in court while Free State residents deny knowing of any project to replace asbestos roofs

Ace Magashule appears in court while Free State residents deny knowing of any project to replace asbestos roofs
An asbestos roofed house in Dihlabeng, Free State, on 12 November 2020. The hazardous roof was supposed to be replaced in 2014 but to date that has not happened despite money having left the Free State human settlements department. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

Nthabiseng Ligelebane has lived in her family home in Dihlabeng, Free State, for 58 years but only recently became aware that the house’s asbestos roof was a hazard to her health.

Like several other residents in the area, Nthabiseng Ligelebane was oblivious to the fact that the roof in her family home was made of asbestos, even though she had experienced lung issues from time to time. 

“I’ve never known another home but this one. My siblings and I were raised here. I raised my children here and today they’re raising their children under the same roof I have called home all my life,” Ligelebane said. 

An asbestos roofed house in Dihlabeng, Free State, on 12 November 2020. The hazardous roof was supposed to be replaced in 2014 but to date that has not happened despite money having left the Free State human settlements department. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

It was only after an arrest warrant was issued for ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule on 10 November that Ligelebane learned about the dangers of asbestos roofs. 

In 2014, the Free State department of human settlements (FSHS) embarked on a project to identify and replace asbestos roofs in the province. 

Gauteng-based Blackhead Consulting, owned by controversial businessman Edwin Sodi, and Igo Mpambani’s Diamond Hill Trading, landed a R255-million contract to do the job. Mpambani has since been assassinated.

The joint venture identified 36,000 asbestos roofs in the province that needed to be replaced. Despite the millions that were paid out from provincial coffers, no roofs were replaced.

Public Protector confirms more than R200m squandered in Free State asbestos audit

It is these residents who today suffer the consequences of this alleged corruption.

“We all cough. It’s normal for us. But it never occurred to me that the roof could be to blame. Could it be the roof?” a puzzled Ligelebane asked. 

Nthabiseng Ligelebane looks up to her asbestos roofed home in Dihlabeng, Free State, on 12 November 2020. Like many other Dihlabeng residents, she was not aware that her family home has an asbestos roof until recently. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

While Ligelebane has not been diagnosed with asbestosis, the Mayo Clinic’s description of the disease matches her and her family’s symptoms. 

The Mayo Clinic describes asbestosis as a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. Prolonged exposure to these fibres can cause lung tissue scarring and shortness of breath. Asbestosis symptoms can range from mild to severe, and usually don’t appear until many years after continued exposure.

Ligelebane lives with her two adult children and four grandchildren in a three-room apartheid-era house that she inherited from her parents, who have since died. 

“My legs make it difficult for me to work but I want to finish renovating the house and then I will retire,” she said pointing to her newly installed flooring. 

“I told my children it is now their turn to work for me.” 

An asbestos roofed house in Dihlabeng, Free State, on 12 November 2020. The hazardous roof was supposed to be replaced in 2014 but to date that has not happened despite money having left the Free State human settlements department. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

While a team from Daily Maverick navigated the small rural township and attempted to engage with residents, their fear of speaking out publicly was palpable.

“What happens if my house is put on sale after you take a photograph?” one resident asked. “I can’t take that risk.” 

Sello Ramokhufe, 33, is renting a house in Dihlabeng, and he says the bedroom he sleeps in has a mouldy smell. 

“The smell mostly comes out in the evening. Sometimes you’d swear that the roof has water in it, or at least it is damp,” he said. 

Ramokhufe, who hails from Pretoria, moved to the province for work. He previously rented another house in the area, also with an asbestos roof, and his experience was similar. 

“These houses are old. They need renovations… they are no longer safe or dignified for anyone,” he added. 

Sello Ramokhufe pictured on 12 November 2020 is originally from Pretoria but works in Bloemfontein. He is renting a house in Dihlabeng, Free State, and his bedroom has an unbearable mouldy smell because of the asbestos roofing. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

As was the case with Ligelebane, Ramokhufe, an active member of the ANC in the region, had never heard of the project to replace the asbestos roofs.

“This is a small town and news travels fast, so I would have known if there were people surveying the houses to replace the roofs,” he said. 

And so it continued with every knock on people’s doors – the asbestos project was news in Dihlabeng. 

Daily Maverick’s investigative journalism unit, Scorpio, exposed how the R255-million contract was instead used to finance the lives of luxury once enjoyed by high-flying businessmen, Edwin Sodi and Igo Mpambani. 

On Friday 13 November, Ace Magashule appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrates’ Court with seven other government officials and businesspeople accused of colluding in the allegedly corrupt Free State asbestos project. 

Magashule faces multiple counts of alleged transgressions stipulated in the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, among other legislation relating to corruption. DM

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