South Africa

CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

‘Hope is fading’ — families of workers missing after George building collapse voice their fears

‘Hope is fading’ — families of workers missing after George building collapse voice their fears
People from the George community and families of those that remain beneath the rubble of the collapsed building gathered outside the local Civic Centre on Thursday evening, singing songs and saying prayers for those who are missing. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi on Thursday visited the families of the 44 workers missing after a building collapsed in George and said the Department of Employment and Labour would launch an investigation into the disaster.

Members of the George community and families of those who have yet to be removed from the rubble of a collapsed building in George gathered outside the town’s civic centre on Thursday evening, singing songs and saying prayers for the missing. The mood was sombre as rescue and recovery efforts at the site entered a third night.

By 8pm, the number of people retrieved from the rubble remained at 37, of whom eight were dead when they were found.

Earlier in the afternoon, the minister of employment and labour, Thulas Nxesi, visited the families of the 44 workers who remained unaccounted for. He asked them to provide documentation and photographs of their loved ones so authorities could expedite the process of identifying victims, conducting an investigation and handling any claims that needed to be paid to the victims.

He assured those who may be in the country illegally that the request for documentation was not for deportation purposes.

Thulas Nxesi, Minister of Employment and Labour, addresses the media at the site of the collapsed building in George (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“[Provide] any documents that you might have about your relative who might have been working here,” he told the families. “We also heard that you’re pained by the fact that the employer [or] owner has not come to speak to you. We will try to help facilitate that.”

There have been claims that many of those hired to work at the site were undocumented foreign nationals. However, at a press briefing on Thursday, Lieutenant General Tebello Mosikili, the deputy commissioner of the South African Police Service, said: “The investigation is under way. We cannot at this stage confirm that there are undocumented people amongst those that were trapped, amongst those that were rescued.”

Lieutenant General TC Mosikili, Deputy National Commissioner of the SAPS, addresses the media at the site of the collapsed building in George. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Daily Maverick spoke to family members, including Owenzela Ralarala, whose boyfriend is among the 44 workers unaccounted for.

“The communication has been slacking,” she said. “We were not even contacted as family members to be informed about the incident. We came here when we heard people talking about it.

“The authorities are counselling us and giving us food, but we do not know the status of our relatives. Are they dead, still trapped under the rubble or alive in a hospital? These are the questions we have. The waiting is painful.”

Edinah Mhango told Daily Maverick that her brother-in-law Paul Matwawana had been working for a subcontractor at the site for the past six months. She said he had been paid in cash, not via a bank account.

He had never said anything about the condition of the building.

“Maybe it is because he was not experienced and he worked as a general worker. As a family, we had hope that he would come out alive but all that hope is gone now. We are just waiting for the recovery of his body,” she said.

Siphesihle Mehlo, a 21-year-old artisan studying at a local college, was conducting his practical training at the site when the building collapsed. His uncle, Gugulethu Khonono, revealed that one of the survivors had raised concerns about the building’s condition before the collapse.

Gugulethu Khonono is searching for his nephew, Siphesihle Mehlo (21) who was caught in the building collapse. (Photo: Velani Ludidi)

“He mentioned that there were cracks in and around the building, but they were merely covered up with cement instead of being properly addressed. The collapse seemed inevitable, yet the building owners neglected to take action due to their greed,” he claimed.

He said Mehlo’s father was among the volunteers clearing the site. “It’s now in God’s hands,” he said. “Though hope is fading, we still believe in the possibility of a miracle.”

Owner of the premises subpoenaed

In the press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Nxesi said David Esau, the provincial chief inspector for the Department of Employment and Labour, would lead the department’s investigation of the incident.

Esau said, “The day we arrived, we tried to make contact with the client, which is the owner of these premises. The address on our system, we went to that address and it was locked. We then proceeded to issue a subpoena. And up until today, there has been no response from that particular person.

“We will proceed with our legal processes and I’m hearing everywhere that [the owner is] making contact with people through his attorneys. That’s not our business. He is obliged by law to make contact with the department.”

When asked to name the owner and confirm whether his company was in George, Esau said, “If you go on to their website you’ll see it says ‘George-based company’. I will not further elaborate on that matter.”

During a press briefing on Tuesday, the mayor of George, Leon van Wyk, said the developer in charge of the site was Neo Trend Group, ICE Projects.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘I want my boy out of there’ — agonising vigil for families of those trapped in George building rubble

Theuns Kruger, the director of Liatel Developments, the contractor for the collapsed building, told the George Herald they were committed to cooperating with authorities to determine the cause of the disaster.

On Thursday, Nxesi said the police were in control of the scene. “They will do their own work unhindered, but at some stage the police will hand over … to the Department of Labour, which will be able to start with its own investigations.”

Different departments involved in the investigation needed to work together and support one another, he said.

“It is not a competition and also we can’t play politics with the lives of the workers. This is a stage when we must put our differences aside. We know that it’s election time … but this is about the disaster that has affected the poor workers.”

Nxesi said that the department’s responsibility was the “social protection” of the workers. He said the authorities would work with the Department of International Relations to engage with foreign missions from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, as some families of workers caught in the collapse were struggling with language barriers.

“At this stage, it’s not about foreign nationals or nationals. It is about human beings — human beings who have rights and whose rights are supposed to be protected, regardless of their status, regardless of their nationality,” Nxesi said.

Rescue efforts

The George Municipality said heavy earth-moving machinery would arrive on Thursday evening to assist with the rescue and recovery efforts. This would include two five-tonne excavators, three 20-tonne excavators and three front-end loaders.

“Despite the introduction of large machinery, rescue techniques will still be applied meticulously and sensitively by the highly skilled and experienced disaster management team,” the municipality said.

Gerhard Otto, the head of disaster management for the Garden Route District Municipality, said they would keep looking for survivors until the end.

“It’ll stay a rescue all along. Although we are moving to harder measures now in terms of the recovery, to speed up the processes … I always pray until the last day that we can still get people alive,” he said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marco Savio Savio says:

    “It’ll stay a rescue all along. Although we are moving to harder measures now in terms of the recovery, to speed up the processes …“….. I would have thought the highest priority from day 1 would have been obtaining the required machinery to lift and remove rubble given the 72 hour golden hours period…… such a sad, sad failure on the building inspectorate department and the HSBRC who are required by law to monitor every stage of the building process and would have picked up the issues had they been attentive enough. It is likely another example of negligence in pursuit of profits. Horrific. So, so sad for these people 🙁

    • Stephen Browne says:

      From what I understand using these machines is very risky if there are survivors, about as much chance of killing them as saving them. I feel for the rescuers, can you imagine how many people are going to be traumatized for life after this.

    • Alison Joubert says:

      I watched some “live footage” of the proceedings there (I think on Wednesday) which went on for a couple of hours (it was on in the background), and there were a LOT of people with hardhats and fluorescent vests, but almost nothing seemed to be happening. And what little was happening, involved 5 to 10 people. I know nothing about the technicalities of rescue protocols in situations like this, but it was agonizing to watch.

      • E.l A says:

        I think most of the work is happening under ground, they make a hole and rescuers go inside and try to get sand/debris/cement blocks out of the way and pass it on to the surface. Then when they find someone, a Dr/medic might go inside as well, if it’s safe and assess if the patient can be removed safely. That’s why we don’t see much movement on the surface, everything is happening inside. Don’t judge the rescuers. I wish they will report more on how such a rescue is done so that we normal people understand, they are risking their lives to go ontop and inside a very unstable environment.

    • John L says:

      You don’t use heavy machinery in the early stages of a recovery. This is more likely to lead to a loss of life when concrete/material shifts and drops. Most work is done by hand and small power tools. It’s not a simple process of bringing in earth movers.
      Building inspectors and the NHBRC can only “see” so much. They are not in a position to know that concrete strengths, curing periods etc are to spec. I think this is a field best left to the specialists who know what they are looing for rather than speculation

  • any updates after yesterday

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    This entire story breaks my heart.
    I appreciate how sensitive the comments by Thulas Nxesi have been; it’s been a while since I’ve heard a politician being so human.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Does Nxesi always visit families of missing workers?….. maybe the Elections played a part.
    What relev is the possibility of foreign, or horrors, undocumented workers on site?

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      It could be either or but my worry is it falls more on the humanity side based on what Nxesi said, a benefit of the doubt is in order here, disturbingly Geoff a report about cracks everywhere just covered with cement says a lot, the employment of foreign nationals seems to have been deliberate to avoid domestic processes, the owner of both the construction and the property are seemingly evasive, the community and residents are taking centre stage selflessly.
      From the basic events so far without even professional details on the cause of the tragedy and loss of life, there is clear intention of evasion of all the safety processes provided for in our legislation, this was done by using foreign nationals whom I am certain based on the jobs they were doing, were lawfully registered.
      A work permit cannot be issued for a skill that can be provided by the available domestic unemployed citizens.
      This becomes a crime of greed as the avoidance of safety regulations were intentionally avoided, illegal foreign nationals cannot report substandard conditions to the labour department without valid work permits.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Correction, the foreign nationals were not lawfully registered.

  • Lesiba Langa says:

    We are devastated. The WC DA government has not learnt a thing from past disasters. We are fed with the narrative that they govern better. The local sphere of govt should have played their part in monitoring the building. But, they slept on duty and continue to lie. And, why are the contractors not in jail?

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