N2 Wild Coast road still faces local opposition

One of South Africa’s biggest and most troubled development projects is entering a new phase, yet some of the same difficulties that have plagued it thus far remain unresolved.

A gargantuan upgrade of the N2 highway between East London and Port Edward that has long been delayed by various community frustrations looks set for similar opposition during its next phase.

The upgrade, including plans for almost 100km of new road through eastern Mpondoland in the former Transkei, and two mega suspension bridges the likes of which have never been built in South Africa, is among the country’s most high-profile development projects. The bridge over the Mtentu River alone will cost the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) at least R1.6 billion.

But Sanral’s latest geotechnical surveys along the proposed route have angered some of the people living near Bekela village. Steve Mdingi is one of them. The tall, greying 54-year-old farms a stretch of land near Bekela, where his family have lived for generations. In his flip-flops, wide-brimmed hat, loose-hanging golf shirt and shorts, Mdingi is usually a figure of calm. That was put to the test recently when surveyors from Sanral left behind a small steel peg protruding from a concrete foundation on his land. Mdingi says the surveys were conducted on his land without any prior negotiation.

23 September 2020: Steve Mdingi in his home near Bekela village. The 54-year-old farms a stretch of land near the village, where his family have lived for generations.

The geotechnical surveys being conducted by the roads agency will inform a preliminary design of the N2. Once the design process is complete, Sanral will have a better idea of the road reserve that is required for the new stretch of highway and begin the process of acquiring the land needed to build it.

But while minor adjustments can be made to the route for technical, social or environmental issues identified during the design process, Sanral says it is unable to construct the highway outside of a corridor approved by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

The politics of pegs

The pegs left behind by Sanral, which mark where geotechnical test pits are dug and refilled, appear innocuous at first. But for Mdingi, and others who say they have had their land surveyed without consultation, they are a source of deep frustration.

Mdingi’s immediate concerns about the hazards that the peg poses to his livestock mirror those of the Zoleka family, who also recently discovered one of Sanral’s pegs on their land without having been consulted about the surveys. Nelson Zoleka, 32, says his family were attending a funeral when the geotechnical surveys were conducted.

But for Mdingi and the Zolekas, the pegs also represent the possibility of being moved off their land in order to accommodate the new highway, raising existential threats rooted in their past and future. Mdingi’s parents are buried near his homestead, for instance. “A grave is a house,” he said, and the idea that their graves may need to be relocated will be unconscionable to his ancestors, who died fighting to defend this land.

“This land, it means myself. If you talk about this land, you talk about me. All my identity is here,” said Mdingi. “To change my life is something I can’t explain. It’s almost like killing me.”

The Zoleka family were scattered across Mpondoland until 2003, when they managed to bring their homesteads together near Bekela. Nelson Zoleka, who feels “sad and unhappy” about Sanral’s surveys, fears that the highway might threaten his family’s unification and compromise their ability to build homes for future generations.

25 September 2020: Nelson Zoleka on his family’s land, where unannounced surveying by Sanral has brought deep frustration.

The consent of your neighbour

Negotiations between Sanral and traditional authorities and communities in the coastal Amadiba region about exactly where the highway will run are continuing. But according to Craig McLachlan, who is managing the project for Sanral and says that claims of any “widespread resistance to the construction of the road” are “patently false”, the agency is making progress in resolving the concerns of residents opposed to the route, like Mdingi and the Zolekas. McLachlan claims that “the overwhelming majority of the Amadiba residents are in support of the N2 Wild Coast road”.

Nofundile Dlamini, a 42-year-old who farms various crops at her homestead near the Zolekas’, has no strong view on whether or where the highway is built. She does, however, feel strongly that Sanral has failed to consult communities properly and “get permission from the people of the land” at Komkhulu, the Great Place of Amadiba’s coastal communities.

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Dlamini has questions regarding the construction of the highway – what will happen if her livestock can no longer access water, for instance, or where her four children and granddaughter will build their homesteads if she is relocated – that she feels she has not been granted an opportunity to ask.

Dlamini’s frustrations highlight the complexity of community consent for developments along the Wild Coast. Here, the limits of homesteads and the fields on which residents subsist are not set out in title deeds, but in the consent of your neighbour. Rights to land are not bought or sold on a property market, but established in a delicate negotiation: first between neighbours, then with sub-headmen and eventually before a customary council at Komkhulu.

Anything short of Sanral seeking the permission of Komkhulu, according to Mdingi, amounts to disrespect. “Komkhulu looks after the land of the people. There is nothing you can do without Komkhulu,” he said. “Nobody can come here and steal the land. Nobody can develop the land without us knowing about it.”

But McLachlan says that all of Sanral’s surveys had the permission of “the community and traditional authority who ‘own’ the land and allocated the right to occupy”, and that its survey teams were all accompanied by a community member designated by the Amadiba traditional leader, Lunga Baleni.

McLachlan says although the vast distances between Mpondoland’s communities and homesteads mean that “it is inevitable that some residents are unaware” of the geotechnical surveys, “there is nothing sneaky or deceptive about the investigations and surveys”.

24 September 2020: Residents of Umgungundlovu listen during a community meeting at Komkhulu.

A bridge now near

With Sanral recently re-advertising the tender for the Mtentu mega bridge, a major piece in the N2 Wild Coast puzzle may finally be falling into place.

After residents of the nearby Jama village shut down work on the bridge during the final months of 2018, construction giant Aveng and Austrian firm Strabag, which were initially awarded the tender, withdrew from the project.

The high court in Pretoria, however, dismissed the companies’ urgent application to prevent Sanral from calling in performance and retention guarantees worth about R340 million. Aveng and Strabag’s appeal against the decision was heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal on 14 September, the same day that the high court in Pretoria handed down a judgment granting communities that might be affected by mining applications the right to see those applications. The victory strengthens a right won by the same coastal communities in Amadiba in late 2018 to dissent to any proposed mining on their ancestral land.

13 April 2019: The construction of the Mtentu mega bridge came to a standstill after community protests late in 2018. The tender for this part of the N2 Wild Coast project has now been re-advertised. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
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