11 July 2019

South Africa: Government's Multi-Million Rand Filling Station Stands Empty for Years

Chief Sebenzile Nyangilizwe Mathanzima of Qamata (and surrounding locations in Cofimvaba near Queenstown) has vowed that the Qamata Integrated Energy Centre (IeC) will not operate until the land it is on is returned by the municipality to three local businessmen.

The Thembisile Hani IeC is basically a PetroSA filling station with one pump station on the R61 about 18km from Cofimvaba town. It was completed three years ago but has never operated.

In its 2016 report PetroSA "committed" R14.5 million for its construction and stated that: "After completion in December 2016, an initial number of 14 permanent jobs (IeC manager, four cashiers, petrol attendants and cleaners), will be created. Other supplementary projects include a car wash and computer laboratory."

In 2013, government reported it had held "a sod-turning ceremony ahead of the launch of a multi-million rand energy services centre".

At the time, Nosizwe Nokwe-Macamo, then PetroSA Group CEO, said the Qamata project was a matter of "corporate responsibility". "There is a dire need for affordable and quality energy products in the proposed IeC location and the surrounding villages," she said.

PetroSA told GroundUp it has "fulfilled its obligations pertaining to the construction of the Qamata Integrated Energy Centre (IeC)."

IeCs are described by the department as a "one-stop energy shop owned and operated by a registered community cooperative aimed at (energy) poverty alleviation in RSA's rural hinterlands".

But Chief Mathanzima says Intsika Yethu Local Municipality has taken land which he had given more than a decade ago to businessmen Gcinikhaya Buyaphi, Bantu Tshijila and Vulindlela Mbotoli. The men are from different villages under his traditional leadership.

Mathanzima says the land belongs to the traditional leadership, not the municipality. The municipality says the land was used by Spoornet to house workers for railway construction, and later handed over to the municipality.

The three businessmen showed GroundUp papers they say give them the sites. Mbotoli showed a letter from the Qamata Traditional Council from 2012; Tshijila from 2011 (saying it confirms he is the "legal owner" since 2007); and Buyaphi showed a "reservation certificate" from the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture in 2005 giving him permission to build a filling station.

Each of the men had their own idea as to what they wanted to do on their sites, all of them where the IeC has been built.

Tshijila, from Magwala location, wanted to build tourist accommodation, but he says the municipality stopped him in 2012, saying it was municipal land. 'I was away with work when one of my then workers called me from the site saying that I am being served with court papers by the municipality to stop whatever I was doing ... I told myself I will go to the Cofimvaba court when I am back ... . Before I got the chance to go to the court, I was told the municipality is on my site demolishing my structure."

Mbotoli dreamed of building an office block to decentralize congested Cofimvaba. He was waiting for financing when he was summoned to the municipal offices and told that as he had not done anything with the site since 2003, they were taking it from him.

"Look at me, I am too old. Soon I will die and I have nothing to leave my family ... I don't even have money to pay attorneys to fight for me," said Mbotoli, who is in his 80s.

Buyaphi said the municipality stole his idea to build a filling station. He said he pitched the idea in 2005 and asked the municipality if they would object. They refused permission.

"Months later, the municipality wrote me a letter offering me to partner with them in my business plan. I never responded to that letter," he said.

"We are willing to combine our businesses and work together, the three of us, once the municipality gives us back our land," said Buyaphi,

"Since I felt that their vision will improve our villages and create job opportunities for our unemployed youth I decided to give them the sites," Chief Mathanzima told GroundUp. "Years later, when two of them were starting to work on the sites, two municipal officials came to my home - Kholiswa Vimbayo, who was the Intsika Yethu mayor then, and municipal manager Zamuxolo Ngxadada Shasha - and [tried to] persuade me to take the sites from these men ... When I refused, they told me that they will not take orders from me as I was offering them a different piece of land. They said they are the government after all."

GroundUp was unable to reach Vimbayo for comment, but Shasha said he could not comment since he is no longer working for the municipality.

Spokesperson for the municipality Zuko Ntshangana said the land was given to the municipality by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. He said the chiefs are generally mere custodians of communal land.

PetroSA commented: "Issues of land ownership and the access road to the facility fall under the local municipality. PetroSA is ready to hand over the facility any time it is invited to do so, and it has already trained staff to operate the centre as part of the readiness plan."

In the grand scheme of bungles and mundane corruption in South Africa, this story may seem insignificant. After all it's just an unused R14-million petrol station (and internet cafe grandly described as a "computer laboratory"). But it exemplifies the poor governance of the Eastern Cape and PetroSA, a government-owned company.

It should not be complicated who owns and who has the right to use the land on which the petrol station is located. The answer should lie in a deeds office, and in the form of properly prepared, signed and stored contracts. But it seems in the Eastern Cape, with its entanglement of traditional leaders and former homeland officials, something that should be simple has become intractably complicated.

The consequence is that not only the business people involved lose out, but so do a dozen or so people who could have had jobs, and the potential users of the petrol station and internet cafe.

Picture this mess replicated a thousand times over, and the Eastern Cape's lack of development is brought into sharp focus.

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