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CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

George building consultant previously faced engineering council probe, but evidence insufficient to prove transgression

George building consultant previously faced engineering council probe, but evidence insufficient to prove transgression
Illustrative image: Rescue personnel work on 7 May to clear debris and rescue trapped workers at the collapsed building on Victoria Street in George. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp) | Consulting Engineer Atholl Mitchell. (Photo: Supplied) | An architect’s impression of the apartment blocks that were to be called 75 Victoria that collapsed during construction. (Illustration: Supplied)

The multibillion-rand construction industry in the Cape is in the spotlight after the catastrophic collapse of a building in George, with the death toll on Monday at 32 and rising.

Addressing the media at the site of the collapsed building in George on Monday, eight days after the disaster, the minister of public works, Sihle Zikalala, disclosed that the main contractor, Liatel Developments, was not registered with the Construction Industry Development Board. 

This was, he said, as a result of a loophole in current legislation affecting only “private sector clients”.

Liatel oversaw the construction of the four-storey apartment block on Erf 15098, which was due to be occupied in August, while Mitchell & Associates served as structural and civil engineers and as the principal agent.

The plans for the ill-fated 75 Victoria project were signed off by the consulting engineer Atholl Mitchell.

Meanwhile, the Engineering Council Of South Africa (Ecsa) has confirmed to Daily Maverick through its spokesperson, Basetsana Khoza, that the body had received a complaint “about a registered person, which prompted an investigation as per the mandate of the council”.

Daily Maverick specifically named engineer Mitchell in our query to the Esca, as sources disclosed that a complaint had been lodged about his conduct on building sites but that “nothing had come of it”.

Khoza said in that instance “there was insufficient evidence, based on the investigation, to suggest a transgression of the applicable Code of Conduct for Registered Persons”.

The layers of the players on any building project, from architects to engineers to contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers can be as difficult to penetrate as the collapsed concrete slabs that now entomb at least 20 people of the estimated 81 who worked on the George site. 

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

Unskilled and undocumented labour

A race against the clock has seen valiant rescue efforts coordinated at the scene of the disaster, with extraordinary solidarity and an outpouring of love and support from across the country and rescue workers working through the night.

City Press reported this weekend that 19-year-old Florence Kawunga was one of the missing. She had been employed as a cleaner but had ended up mixing cement on site, her brother, Matthew Simbye, told journalists. 

A video of his sister doing so had been forwarded to Theuns Kruger, the director of Liatel, Simbye said.

Kawunga had been employed for four months when the multistorey building caved in on that awful Monday afternoon. 

She has not been found and there is little hope she has survived.

Several investigations are being conducted, including by structural and engineering experts, the SA Police Service and the departments of labour and home affairs about the possible exploitation of undocumented foreign refugees and the violation of laws and regulations.

Speaking out

One Cape Town developer, who requested anonymity, dealt with Mitchell on a previous development.

The owner of the development, consulting and construction management company, told Daily Maverick that he was so concerned about the quality of Mitchell’s work on a project they collaborated on that he had called in other engineers to provide a second or third opinion and assessment.

“On a building site, the engineer is God. Even when he is wrong,” the developer said.

Mitchell, he added, was a “forceful” character who did not enjoy cooperating with other engineers and would seldom accept criticism or advice.

The developer added that he had been unhappy with the work delivered by Mitchell and had confronted him.

“I was wary of the work he had done on a project and called in three different engineers who agreed it was not acceptable and dangerous. 

“But when I said I was calling in the lawyers, none of them would go up against him. Engineers can be like doctors, they are a closed community,” he said.

Mitchell was known for leveraging his power as the consulting engineer to withhold “form fours”  — the completion certificates which enable a developer to begin selling units to the public.

Mitchell was also the consulting engineer on a site in Tableview in 2018 which caused endless frustration for an elderly couple, Emmy Wolff and her husband, who moved to Blouberg 40 years ago. 

In January 2018 a “surfer’s house” next door to their property was demolished for new development, a four-storey block of flats. Mitchell was the consulting engineer with the developer.

When the boundary wall next to the Wolffs’ property collapsed, Mitchell was accused by the couple of “not acting swiftly enough to deal with the threat of further erosion”. 

Mitchell undertook to repair the mess “within the next two months”.

He never did. And when the community newspaper Table Talk asked Mitchell about this he responded that he was no longer involved in the project and that the buck stopped with the developer.

Basement nightmare

While many have come forward and spoken about their encounters with Mitchell, all have asked not to be named although their identities are known to Daily Maverick. 

A developer set out his nightmare experience with Mitchell, who was the consulting engineer on a project in a private housing estate.

“It was a two-storey development with a basement,” recalled our source.

The developer was already working with an engineer when a concrete supply company suggested he ask Mitchell for an opinion on the basement. 

Mitchell’s solution was, the source said, to use precast concrete slabs.

“In the end, Atholl sort of muscled my engineer off the project. You can’t have two engineers contradicting each other and Athol was also cheaper.” 

Problems began almost immediately when the developer noticed “no supervision on-site”, especially during work on crucial structural aspects, like casting the basement.

“I would have a question for Atholl but he would refer it to his draughtsman and tell me to deal with him directly. He was either in Australia on holiday or in the Kruger Park.” 

Mitchell would often send an associate or his draughtsman to check on the work. 

Matters came to a head when our source said he demanded better oversight from Mitchell on the project and appointed a different engineer to do inspections and oversee the construction layer by layer.

“Atholl does not like to work with other engineers so we parted ways,” said our source.

Another consultancy subsequently found that this two-storey house had been “under spec” with no beams and no columns reinforcing the basement.

“We had to do two huge ‘footings’ of 2.6m across as well as columns to put up with the load of the building. We also had to place two skins of bricks on the parameter as there was going to be nothing there.”

Luckily, the source added, it was early enough in the construction to fix these flaws, which could have proved fatal. 

Right of reply

Those who have contacted Daily Maverick have retained copies of their communication with Mitchell regarding complaints directed at him and his company.

Daily Maverick has offered Mitchell the right to reply by contacting him at the email address listed for his business as well as the cellphone registered to him.

At the time of writing, the publication was yet to receive a response.

The day after the building collapse, Mitchell was reported missing on the Facebook Pink Ladies missing persons page but was found a few hours later.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Consulting engineer who signed off plans for collapsed George building reported missing — later found 

DM

This is a developing story.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Smanga Z says:

    It’s awfully quiet in here. Why isn’t he being condemned as is commonplace here? I think we all know the reason why. Usually these folks are spared. Condemnation is reserved for some.

    • Wayne Kitching says:

      May it is quite because your comment was posted at 5:55, but the newsletter email was sent after 6. Many people only read the DM after they’d received the First Thing email.

      If the allegations are true, the consulting engineer’s conduct is completely unacceptable and ECSA must launch an investigation which could result in his deregistering.

      In my industry (Utility scale electrical and renewable energy works, there are multiple engineers checking each other’s work. Maybe the general construction sector must adopt the same practice.

      If the allegations are true,

    • Wayne Kitching says:

      Yikes, I should have re-read my comment!

    • Tumelo Tumelo says:

      Smanga, I glad you have said this. A week ago on these commentary pages it descended into racist troupes couched as BEE commentary and so forth- without a shred of evidence. It is now eerily quiet.

      • David McCormick says:

        Agree

      • Pieter van de Venter says:

        Well, it could still be – There are no findings as yet. BEE, construction mafia or local PA/ANC politician.?

        Who know – nobody knows.

        • Tumelo Tumelo says:

          What we do KNOW thus far is that every entity fingered has a pale face as its owner and operator. So by that metric does that mean every non-black developer, contractor is incompetent or corrupt? ( that is a rhetorical question, by the way)

        • Tumelo Tumelo says:

          What we do KNOW ,from verifiable facts and observations, thus far is that every entity fingered in this tragedy has a non-black face as its owner and operator. So by that metric does that mean every non-black developer, contractor is incompetent or corrupt? ( that is a rhetorical question, by the way). So let us park the racist troupes and stereotypes so we engage in meaningful discussions here.

          • T'Plana Hath says:

            A ‘Trope’ is a literary device or a concept that is used repeatedly in a particular genre of art, literature, or cinema, among others. Tropes are neutral and are used to convey particular ideas or motifs effectively. They become recognizable through their repeated use, such as the ‘reluctant hero’ in adventure stories or the ‘haunted house’ in horror movies. Tropes can be creatively played with or subverted, and they serve as building blocks in storytelling.

            Unlike a trope, a ‘Stereotype’ has a negative connotation because it involves oversimplified and generalized ideas about a group of people or things, often leading to misconceptions. Stereotypes are based on assumptions that are thought to apply universally within certain groups, like racial, gender, or cultural stereotypes. They can promote prejudice and are considered harmful because they can lead to unfair or biased attitudes and behaviors.

            ‘Troupes’ are groups of actors or dancers who tour from venue to venue.

    • Heidi T says:

      I agree 100%! Where are all the biased rantings which have become so common on DM comments? This tragedy is absolutely shocking, yet has been used as an opportunity for people to rant on about race/politics. DM just listed all the previous oversights and transgressions by Mitchell and his company and now the usual rhetoric is silent. Our country is never going to heal while we are so divided into ‘them and us’. I for one, hope Mitchell and anyone else involved, spend the rest of their days in jail, for all the counts of murder coming their way.

    • Pieter van de Venter says:

      AHA – ANC screaming race again? Smanga?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      How unbelievably racist of you. Oh sorry, black people can’t be racist. I forgot.

    • Andrew Newman says:

      The Daily Maverick doesn’t generally allow criticism of the DA authorities.
      Comments get removed.

    • USer User says:

      Get over yourself!?? 🤷‍♂️

  • Trevor Pope says:

    These investigations are very costly and ECSA doesn’t have the financial resources to do many of these. Given that this is a public interest matter, this should be state funded. (I suppose this is a broader problem that applies to other professions as well. )

  • Just Me says:

    The licencing authority for these builders/contractors, the NHBRC, are conspicuously quiet on this, but it is their charge.

  • Andrew Molyneaux says:

    There is a bit of a dichotomy here – The instructions/determinations of any “Consulting Engineer” (to use more or to use less) will have a cost implication for the owner/s of the facility under construction, and which it is to be expected will have a consideration on acceptance/non-acceptance of said instructions/determinations. So perhaps “follow the money” rather than follow the man! – Nonetheless every aspect of every decision made leading up to this tragedy needs expert, thorough, robust, and determined investigation – and yes most Professional Bodies are a closed shop, however peer review should not be excluded – Based on the historical decline of State Institutions I believe that this should be done “outside” of the State Machinery – Remember that if negligence is found someone is facing numbers of culpable homicide charges, and yes perhaps even the families of those who lost their lives instituting a civil claim for damages – There must be no “Holy Cows”

  • Antje Lenhard says:

    Antje

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      I bet non of the construction will commence without the blessing of the municipal signature, I know this is DA municipality but individuals make these mistakes and that is not the mandate of the DA, the only problem is if they condone these mistakes.
      I am not speaking for the DA, this is still about engineers and officers, it will only be about the party based on what they condone on officers they appoint.
      Let’s follow on who did what as the information unfolds.
      The political formations can just help with the investigations.

  • Sonja Bakker says:

    Honestly, during my dealings with the construction industry, I have never met as a bad and corrupted industry than construction. From experience, I know that they do employee people that are not qualified and many times, during my building process, I found the construction site manager sleeping in his bakkie while the labourers were doing the work. So nothing that is going to come out of this investigations would surplice me. And I do believe that if there is negligence, the people responsible should be charged with culpable homicide. They are responsible for the death of so many people and if you are in this kind of industry, you should know that cutting corners is not an option. That is why professional are monitored by various regulating bodies. They, not just the engineer, must be held accountable.

  • Trevor Gray says:

    I have personal knowledge /recollectionof the Blouberg property which is referred to. As it is obvious he was involved, it certainly offers the narrative of being insufficiently equipped or involved in the project(s)
    I also note that a number of construction professionals have been quick to defend colleagues in this tragedy. Whilst it is understandable to a point, they surely must realize that the systems in place are perceived as predominantly a closed shop with priority to shield members from the pesky complaints of laymen who they are not beholden to . The piece also offers a glimpse of the power of on site engineer who is the ultimate authority on the project.
    Much criticism has been lavished on BBEE practices as a contributor yet is this and other sectors still not firmly controlled by non black practitioners?
    We saw in the resultant investigations of 2010 W.C stadia malfeasance that the temptation to be corrupted is not colour based ?
    Whether it be doctors or lawyers or any other self governing entity, their members come first and will be shielded vigorously!

  • Simon Dobson says:

    Its all glossy & good with fancy marketing & fantastic reviews until the proverbial sh1t hits the fan. I had a roof structure installed by a company called Awnmaster a number of years ago, which according to their website was supposedly ” engineer designed & approved” & they were supposedly the best around in their field.
    Needless to say, the roof structure collapsed during its first storm , narrowly missing my son which could have proved fatal.
    Awnmaster refused to apologize or accept any responsibility for this collapse & their first reaction was ” get your insurance to pay”
    The result was that I contacted both the Durban chamber of commerce & the master builders association whom Awnmaster proudly projected on their website that they were members of.
    I found both organisation’s weak & innefective , essentially ” rubber toothed bulldogs”. The master builders inspector who attended didn’t even know the difference between tensile & compressive stress.
    One would expect decisive action in instances like this but all I got was excuses & lies from awnmaster and absolutely no action from the master builders association. The media reports of ” closing up shop” spring to mind.The designer & installer, who despite proudly proclaiming that ” we know weather” on its website, blamed the weather for the collapse. Imagine installing a roof with no ” fall” to remove rainwater.
    There was absolutely no acceptance of responsibility & accountability by the company who designed & installed the structure. Although not on the same scale as the George tragedy, it appears to be a sad indictment of some parts of the construction industry in this country.
    Going by the media reports of the industry ” closing shop” on this, it’s not surprising. There are companies out there with not one scrap of integrity.

    The George incident is absolutely tragic & all involved in this construction tragedy must be fully investigated and jailed if found guilty of any wrongdoing.
    As with the ANC led government, in this country, we are continually fed with “It’s not me, its not my fault”
    Let’s hope that someone is eventually held accountable for this construction horror story.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Without any actual detail on anything much, the criticism may be OTT by both Marianne and the contributors thus far. Not that I am saying it is incorrect.
    SAPS, Home Affairs too joining in….there do seem to be some foreigners on site, dead or alive but how do we even know they are undocumented

  • Rae Earl says:

    Atholl Mitchell is in for a very rough ride. If there is any positive aspect of this tragedy, it lies in the fact that this is a massive wake-up call to all in the construction industry. Every stage in the building process must comply with every rule and regulation governing that process from start to finish. Without that disaster awaits.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    This engineer is toast! People died. A lot of people died. Even if he was very competent, he screwed up. And if he is incompetent or knowingly took shortcuts, its even worse. But either way, people died, he is toast.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    And many ANC minister have been caught with their hands in the till!!!

    So what is your point?

  • Jack Russell says:

    The NHBRC is a total con. I’ve paid them close to a million Rand, yes, R1 000 000.00 their combined fees on two projects AND I NEVER ONCE HEARD FROM THEM OR SAW THEM ON SITE!!!! Another anc inspired racket?

    As for Mitchell, who sounds like the kind of structural engineer who should not be practicing, where is the institute?

    It’s essential that this disaster be investigated, funded by the NHBRC who, rumor has it, sit on billions in cash, as the fault could well be substandard construction practice?

  • A Rosebank Ratepayer says:

    It’s good that the chatterati are keeping quiet for a change, particularly given the awfulness of this tragedy. It is likely that, given the political and social context of this project, the truth will eventually out. Especially if SA’s investigative journalists live up to their reputation. They must just be careful to get their technical facts correct. Hopefully they have expert peer reviewers.

  • At this stage, I think people are all going to try and point fingers to exonerate themselves. Until an investigation is conducted, the following will happen:
    1. Many people close to the situation are going to be attempting to distance themselves
    2. Many outsiders who “knew someone on this job” from a past contract are going to pass comment (as I’m about to do).

    To provide context, a member of my family has been in the construction industry for about 6 decades, both in terms of personal projects (multiple home builds) and professionally (working for a very large construction company). Our experience is that the industry is rife with people trying to get things done quickly, bend rules, and save costs.

    To just add some balance here, my family member in the construction industry worked with Athol Mitchell on numerous projects back in the day – he was the engineer employed by the construction firm that employed my relative. Before all this news broke, my relative and I chatted about this and he said that he always found Athol Mitchell to be professional and competent.

    I’m not trying to defend Mitchell, what I’m trying to say, is that talk is easy. I think it would be wise to wait until a full investigation finds out what really happened. Athol Mitchell has been in business for decades, and nothing like this has happened before. I realize the counter viewpoint is that “there’s always a first time”. But what I’m suggesting is that it is probably a good idea to suspend judgment until the truth of this specific situation is revealed.

  • supercat says:

    I think your article on Athol Mitchell is mean , nasty and irresponsible journalism.
    Trial by media ! Not to speak of the altered picture of the man. Athol was the consultant on my project in Scottsdene in the 19 80’s and did a great job. You should be ashamed of yourself. And the Daily Maverick just lost points in my book for allowing this. Let Justice takes its course before you crucify him

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      DM is never short of people who defend the indefensible, if Athol did everything according to the book in 1980, it’s a good reason that he was never in trouble then, 2024 he engineered a construction and the structure imploded like it was laden with explosives (Ben Harper will school me on implode).
      Athol as the engineer is liable like never before.
      By the way no one in the company deems it appropriate to meet the families and the victims, this on its own speak volumes.

    • virginia crawford says:

      40 years ago! People change – not so many corrupt 20-year olds, but many over 40.

      • Pieter van de Venter says:

        On what grounds at by what trial has the engineer been found guilty? It is ALL speculation and political grand standing. A place where useless politicians can been seen and sell their poison.

        It was so insightful with Ramacouche’s statement to the families “you have all lost loved ones”. A deep thinker and he knows how to explain a very complex situation.

  • Andrew Newman says:

    Engineering Council of South Africa has charged Mitchell for misconduct on an earlier project according to News24.

  • Africa Thaba says:

    Accountability. That is the key word. As my partner beautifully puts it “Nobody is perfect” Thus account and face the necessary implications. We cannot just turn a blind eye to this mass accident(pending the official cause of collapse), whether professionally negligent or not. A certain standard has to be set by the industry and the consistency in the execution of this standard will dictate the state of all future infrastructure in the Republic. There is only so much your race and political affiliation can spare you from, this is bigger than a spew. People have died

  • Concerned Citizen says:

    “ The layers of the players on any building project, from architects to engineers to contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers can be as difficult to penetrate as the collapsed concrete slabs that now entomb at least 20 people of the estimated 81 who worked on the George site.”

    I’m surprised this paragraph made it past the editor’s desk

  • virginia crawford says:

    I am interested to know what the Engineering Council S.A. actually does: they are so busy that it takes months to investigate a complaint? Also interesting that someone with a reputation like that, and at 76, continues to land lucrative contracts. It is clearly very difficult to act against people like him, but why? The case in Table View sounds pretty straightforward. He sounds like a scoundrel with connections.

    • Andrew Newman says:

      It’s about developers and architects shopping around for the most lenient engineers and the cheapest builders.
      Why else source a 76 year old engineer living 400 km away unable to attend site visits.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    Reality check here: Not being registered with the CIDB (Construction Industry Development Board) is nothing to get excited about. The CIDB exists for development of emerging contractors working in the public (government) sector, with the aim of creating transformation.

    Contractors in the private sector would not register with the cidb.

  • Robert de Vos says:

    An interesting takeaway from this disaster is that 90% of the workers were foreigners: Malawian, Mozambiquan and Zimbabwean.

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