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CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

20 still missing in George building collapse as Public Works’ Zikalala visits site

20 still missing in George building collapse as Public Works’ Zikalala visits site
Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala. (Photo: Department of Public Works and Infrastructure / Facebook)

Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala has pledged his department’s support for an investigation into the building collapse in George.

Speaking to families of workers caught in the George building collapse on 13 May, Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala described the incident as the “biggest tragedy in the construction industry since 1994”.

As of 6pm on Monday, the death toll stood at 32. A total of 61 people have been removed from the rubble, with 20 still unaccounted for. Twelve of those rescued are currently in hospital.

Zikalala said his department would be supporting the Department of Employment and Labour in its investigation of the collapse.

Read more in Daily Maverick: No one knows how many people were inside collapsed George building – Bheki Cele

“We want to ensure a thorough investigation … No one must be protected,” he said. 

“Accountability is what we want to ensure – accountability at the level of government [and] at the level of those who are project initiators, as well as contractors that were involved.

“We are responsible for professionals within the built environment and if something happened among those who are … professionals within the built environment, we will not hesitate to take decisive actions.”

Zikalala said that the local municipality also needed to strengthen its systems to ensure that plans were thoroughly assessed and approved at each stage of construction.

“Out of this incident, we are all going to strengthen regulations that govern these industries so that it protects those who are workers and the citizens,” he said.

“At a public level, we are quite certain that any project that is done by an organ of the state goes through serious checks through our Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB). But we also have a number of other entities, such as the Council for the Built Environment, the Engineering Council of South Africa … Our municipalities are responsible for ensuring that they certify and approve the planning, the implementation…”

Private developers also needed to comply with all regulations to protect people’s livelihoods, Zikalala told the families.

“We need to ensure that companies are checked and assessed [to see] whether they can undertake the level of work and projects that they are given. We are attending to that as we are working on amending the CIDB Act … It’s at an advanced stage,” he said.

“But that is for the future. For this incident, we will be with you. We pledge our solidarity with you. We will ensure that all the services you need are provided.”

Zikalala said that the “project initiators” and the companies that employed people at the George construction site had a “social responsibility” to be present and support the affected workers.

“Those that were employed were employed by them. They are the ones who should be here and ensure that they support the affected families,” he said. 

He pointed out that in many cases, one worker was supporting many people within a family, meaning their loss affected “not just his kids but several people in the family”.

“Often when these things happen to a department or government, we get subjected to scrutiny – which is correct. But that scrutiny must also be applied to private companies equally,” he said.

“We like to see the economy growing and that’s why in every sector, there are regulations. And those who don’t adhere to regulations must be held accountable. We cannot risk the lives of our people, irrespective of their whereabouts … and irrespective of where they come from.”

Moment of silence

The community and residents of George observed a minute’s silence at 2.09pm to honour the lives lost at that time a week ago, and to express their grief and support for the affected families. 

Authorities confirmed the recovery of another body soon after the moment of silence ended. 

Identification of victims

Floyd Herwels, assistant director of the Forensic Pathology Service in George, said they were doing all they could to identify the victims. 

Families are upset, claiming they are not getting updates about their loved ones, even though more and more bodies are being found. Daily Maverick has established that of all the deceased, only one person had been positively identified.

Herwels said they were fast-tracking the process of identification to provide closure to family and friends.

“We take pictures on the scene of the actual victim,” he said. “Then we will take the body to our facility where more pictures will be taken. Once we have started the postmortem, we will take more pictures … of the clothing, any identifiable marks like tattoos and scars that family members might know of.” 

Once this is completed, they will create a photo album for each person who died. The albums will be taken to the town hall to be viewed by families. When a relative is connected to a deceased person, the police and forensic team will start the formal identification process.

“If the bodies are visually identifiable, we will go the visual route and that will assist to get the body identified quicker. If not, then we will have to go the scientific route which is by identifying using fingerprints or DNA.” 

Herwels also said the bodies that are being recovered are beginning to decompose, which makes visual identification difficult. DM

There is an urgent call for professional psychosocial support practitioners proficient in the Chewa, Portuguese and Shona languages to assist survivors and their families. Several practitioners have already offered their services and more are welcome to contact Kholiswa Jobela at 078 210 5972, or Apolus Swart at 061 504 4205.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    This has nothing to do, at all, with the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure….. Dept of Labour, yes, Police…yes.. Public Works cannot even construct a fence.
    Notice how many visits to George by Ministers this last week, much documented by their naive helpers at the DM.

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