By Mamphasa Monethi

As the M562 million construction of key roads linked to the Lesotho Water Highlands Project’s phase second phase powers ahead, a widow’s house near the construction works has been left damaged and possibly unsafe to live in. Contractors have taken some responsibility, done a quick patch of the house, but refused to do more or admit that their blasting has caused lasting damage.

The home of Mantloheleng Keqe, a villager from Ha Ramolakalali was damaged on two occasions. Blasting activities by Rumdel AC Joint Venture, which comprises South Africa-based Rumdel Construction and Lesotho-based A&C Holdings and which is responsible for building a 32.86km road between Semenanyane River and the Polihali Dam site, allegedly damaged the house. A company construction vehicle then crashed into the home. During MNN’s first visit to the home in August, Keqe explained that a construction vehicle had crashed through the wall at the back of her two-roomed house, damaging the roofing, doors and other interior parts of the house, which included furniture, leaving groceries scattered all over.

Since this accident, the sharp downhill curve behind Keqe’s house, the absence of guardrails, and the recent tarring of the road caused two additional incidents where private cars hit Keqe’s house. The change from a gravel road to a tarred surface has contributed to an increase in vehicle speed posing danger to nearby residents.

This situation is made more damaging and dangerous by the blasting a few hundred metres from Kege’s home. She is nervous that her house is not safe, she is unable to sleep because of a nagging feeling that disaster could strike at any moment. As a result, Keqe told MNN that she has moved out of the house into the grass-thatched hut nearby as a temporary solution. She can’t bear the thought of something terrible happening while they were all sound asleep, completely vulnerable and unaware.

Construction near Kege’s home is part of the M562 million Polihali West Access Road and the Rehabilitation of Northern Access Road project. Rumdel is supervised by AECOM SA (Pty) Ltd, who work with AECOM Lesotho as consulting engineers that designed these roads.

While AECOM has recommended that Rundel continue to do monthly assessments of the home, Keqe is not happy with the condition of her home and fears that the construction companies are trying to shirk their responsibilities.

Environmental manager at AECOM, Felleng Ramajake, inspected the repairs on Keqe’s home and made the recommendation for monthly inspections to monitor its condition. However, she is unwilling to discuss the matter publicly and instead, says only their employer, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) can comment.

In an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, Johan Human, Rumdel AC construction manager, admitted that a company car hit part of Keqe’s house causing parts of it to collapse. However, he refused to admit that his company’s blasting activities have anything to do with the cracks that continue to appear on her house.

“We blasted more than 400 to 500 metres away from that house…There was no blasting anywhere near that house and the recorded blasting limits were just close to half of amplitude limit [150mm/s] that could cause potential damage.”

“We are not saying Rumdel is not responsible, but we are completely ruling out blasting vibrations as the cause. The cracks must then be [caused by] something else. Blasting is completely irrelevant and immaterial,” Human insisted.

According to a complaint closure form filled out by Keqe on April 22, 2021 and submitted to the LHDA, Rumdel is accused of the “dilapidation of the house [Keqe’s] due to vibrations caused by construction activities, mainly blast”.

The same form shows that Rumdel’s Community Liaison Officer, Ntsoaki Nenesi, made a submission on May 6, 2021, stating that “the house was repaired, and the owner was satisfied with remedial works”.

But Keqe says she has never been satisfied with the repairs. While she admits that the collapsed part of the wall was rebuilt, she says the interior part was left unplastered with cracks shabbily patched. She denies claims that she was ever satisfied.

Keqe says she was given M300 to purchase plaster and plastering equipment so she could finish the wall herself. Rumdel, Kege says, argued that the wall they had patched was still wet and they couldn’t come back once it dried because they had other pressing matters to attend to.

“It’s possible, and I am not denying it,” Human told MNN.

When asked why they did not consider the actual cost of plastering the walls and only gave Keqe M300, Humane said, “We gave her materials: sand, cement and everything. The M300 was just for her to hire someone for labour.” Keqe denies this saying the company did not leave any materials when they left her home. Keqe’s position is supported by the complaints closure form which Rumdel also signed. “It was agreed that the owner of the house will continue with plastering because the contractor couldn’t plaster the wall because it was still wet. The property owner will be given M300 for plastering the house,” says the form.

MNN also had the opportunity to speak to the Rumdel employee, identified as Thabiso, who led the repairs on Keqe’s house. Thabiso said: “I did the repairs and even went further than what was damaged by the car. The car came through the back wall and we demolished that back wall and rebuilt it all around. However, MNN can confirm that not the whole section of the wall was rebuilt, but only the collapsed part was, and its interior was mud plastered by Keqe (see below pictures).

MNN asked Thabiso whether he plastered the interior wall after rebuilding, and he said, “yes we did put a bit of plaster”.

Human argued: “But on completion of the work, the lady signed a happy letter, which is a contractual obligation we have with the LHDA,” He kept emphasising that Keqe should not have signed the “happy letter” if she was unhappy.

“Nobody forced her to sign [it],” Human said.

MNN has seen this “happy letter” that Keqe’s daughter, Rehauhetsoe Keqe, had written. It was signed by her mother on June 14, 2021. This letter confirms that Keqe’s house was repaired and that she was satisfied. However, Rehauhetsoe told MNN that Nenesi forced her into writing this letter which she says did not reflect her views.  Rehauhetsoe told MNN how Nenesi had assured her that writing this happy letter would facilitate quick repairs by Rumdel. Aside from the happy letter, Nenesi, asked her to write a separate letter to go with it, she says. In this letter she asked for the cracked walls to be repaired. There is no such letter in Keqe’s file at Rumdel that MNN has seen. Keqe suspects that Nenesi did not submit that letter before she left Rumdel. One July 18, 2023 Keqe wrote another letter to the LHDA about her damaged house and asking to be relocated. She is still waiting for a response.

On June 16, 2021 AECOM’s environmental manager, Felleng Ramajake also confirmed in the complaint closure form that: “I inspected the affected structure and I confirm that the house was repaired”.  However, she did recommended “monthly monitoring to assess the structural condition of the house”.

A few months later on October 17 2023, Seinoli visited AECOM offices in Mokhotlong as they tried to find out why the company has not followed up with Rumdel to ensure compliance with their recommendation. One of the key questions was based on the fact that AECOM and Rumdel share a site office and if this could be affecting the two companies’ professional relationship, especially AECOM’s ability to oversee Rumdel. 

Ramajake did not want to talk about the issue. “I am not at liberty to speak with people from outside; that is the duty of the LHDA,” she said.

When MNN asked Human if Rumdel complied with AECOM’s recommendation, Human said: “If there is no blasting in the area and no report from complainants, we don’t visit the house at all. We only do post-construction visits and repairs where there is a need.”

Seinoli is closely working with the LHDA to ensure that Keqe’s issue is dealt with in fairness.

This story was produced by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism in collaboration with the Seinoli Legal Centre.