My flights were booked, and we were putting in long hours to finish on time. It was a project I had set my sights on and had full intentions of seeing it through to the end, what happened next was life changing and almost unbearable at times…

A Brief Outline

I was employed as a site agent by Mamlambo Construction when we were awarded the job to construct a 15Ml post-tensioned reservoir for the OR Thambo and KSD municipalities. It formed part of the KSD  bulk water supply scheme. The project was located in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa and had an estimated contract value of thirty two million Rand. The contract was scheduled to start in April 2014 and the project duration was 12 months.

Just before the first strike, we were lucky to get this slab in as the protestors were on their way up the hill

What were the Delays and challenges?

One of our main challenges on this project was the dealing with the land claim. The piece of land on the hill which the reservoir was planned for had a claim on it from two different communities on either side of the hill. The land dispute became more and more serious as the project progressed until one day we were threatened with our lives if we were to continue working without a resolution. We had no choice but to put down our tools. Other delays included steel industry strikes from the trade unions as well as a claim of unexpected founding conditions (a large dolerite dyke) in the way of our base level.

Our project suffered a total loss of 84 workings days (approx 17 weeks) during the time I worked on the project.

Another awkward challenge we faced was to convince our insurance company that we were not responsible for the flooding of the hotel at the bottom of the hill (that’s a story for another time).

The Rock which was in our way and the stay cables holding the 200m high cell phone tower in place

Mthatha and the Transkei ???

Mthatha, the central business hub and hive for the people who live and/or trade in the Transkei. I’ve heard that if you ‘have what it takes’, doing business in Mthatha could be highly lucrative. The Transkei, in all her beauty, is an extreme place where the unbelievable is a daily routine. If there were a modern day “wild west”, this would be it. The rules are for the weak, if you don’t fit in you will be spotted and ‘taken advantage’ of. It’s funny for some  and sad for others. Be cautious, be respectful but most importantly be calm.

In my brief four years of living their, I was held hostage, saw a tractor driving without front wheels, sign posts being stolen out the ground, goods being lifted from bakkies (Pickups) while in traffic, traffic officials trying to seduce me, potholes with wildlife swimming in them and a person getting crushed to death by potatoes. These are just a few things I have been exposed to and the list goes on, especially if I were to include some of my close friends accounts (shootings, murders, robberies, hijackings etc.)

The Transkei is a place with a booming population and an under supply of all the basic amenities. Most people are living in survival mode which could be the reason for the ingenious African innovation which is present everywhere we choose to see it. My point is that as crazy as something may sound, anything is possible in the Transkei.

The start of our walls and column bases with half of Mthatha in the background

A little more spice to the pot…

I remember when I heard that Mamlambo was awarded the reservoir contract. I was itching for a larger project to prove myself and so I went directly to my contracts manager, Brian Potter, to ask whether he could assign me to the project as the site agent. His initial response was less than enthusiastic, probably because of my limited experience in the field of reservoir construction.

This didn’t stop me though so I took the initiative and started compiling the construction program which ‘put my foot in the door’ and made me a part of the project team. I was initially appointed as the assistant site agent but within two months, I proved my worth and was finally appointed as site agent of the project. The consultants and client were confident that I had what it took to lead the team and to deliver the product on time within the required spec. It was an exciting moment and will never forget when senior Engineer, Louis Conradie, told me, “Toni, now the buck stops at your feet”. Wow, this was my time to shine.

Brian on his weekly visit to site making himself comfortable in my office

We had a tight budget and project schedule which meant we had to get ahead. My previous experience on the roads taught me about the value of utilizing earth moving plant to the maximum during the earthworks phase of project, and so that’s what we did. We worked long hours to get the earthworks out of the way as quickly as possible while keeping quality and cost in check. I figured out methods to motivate my team to work overtime. I believed in our strategy to carry out this task within the deadline and we did it. Things were looking good as we managed to get ahead by one month on the project schedule. *Thanks to Gordon Kirkhoff and our team for putting in the long hours, it paid off for everyone at the end.

Making headway with the earthworks. Big berm on the rise

The last portion of rock in the center of the reservoir was supposed to take us one week to excavate but because we were concerned about blasting the rock, due to the shock-waves which could have ruptured the existing reservoir in the vicinity (30m away), we ended up using an excavator with a hydraulic breaker. This didn’t affect our schedule as we were still able to make progress with our critical path items. The cost did however exceed our allowable. In hindsight, we should have blasted from the word go.

Working into the night was a common sight on this job. We had deadlines to meet

Striking Season…

We were making steady progress with the wall footing and were still ahead of schedule, until the steel industry strike. South Africa has a “strike season” and the problem is that you never know which industry will be next in line to down their tools. It just so happened that this time it was the steel industry which meant that we were unable to get our hands on the re-bar required to continue.

We eventually received the steel, got back on our feet and then it was time for the next strike. This time by the local residents who, through our eyes, were being influenced by corrupt politicians and a crooked businessman, lets call him Mr J. The reason behind the strike was for a land claim by local residents of two different communities on either side of the hill. Apparently, the client (Our Government) did not receive permission from the community to build a water reservoir which would eventually serve the community. This meant that the community leaders (influenced by corrupt officials) felt entitled to receive compensation for this unused piece of land. We were threatened with our lives if we were to continue working without a resolution so we had no choice but to put down our tools.

Local labour attending an on site skills training workshop we managed to organize

It’s not what you know…

I attended many meetings for community negotiations over the project duration. One of the first meetings I attended was rather humiliating, It was an introduction meeting for all stakeholders and community leaders and representatives to get to know each other, I was referred to by Mr J as ‘Ben 10’ and was laughed at, I brushed it off realizing that a reaction was what he was fishing for. This Mr J character had a suspiciously huge influence in the municipality and I was later told that he is not someone to mess with and that he’s taken guys out before. All the better that I never told him what a complete Buffoon he really is #transkeitrump.
I remember attending a meeting at ‘King Sabata Dalindyebos’ house. It was a very official meeting with all of the project stakeholders, including government officials, in attendance. The King arrived to the meeting about forty five minutes late, but when he arrived, he arrived in style. He was a small man dressed in a white suit and top hat and walked in with his cane, he had a neatly groomed beard and even though I didn’t understand all of his words (He addressed the room in Xhosa), I could feel he was speaking with authority because everybody was listening, even Mr J.

The land claim was finally put to rest and we were able to get back to work. He, the King, was also in the process of being charged for possession and dealing of large amounts of Marijuana.

All the Kings horses and all the kings men…

Back to site

Now that the land issue was resolved, it was time for us to proceed. We had already started to erect the first shutter for the first wall pour before the strike began. Our reservoir walls were set out in quadrants and each quadrant would be poured in three lifts. Formscaff (a local formwork and scaffolding company) was in the process of manufacturing a new shutter system especially designed for large reservoir construction, we were just in time to get in as their pilot project. It was a great system using a principle of turn buckle to adjust the shutters to the radius as we required it. We were then able to lift and move large sections with ease. The initial setup took some time, but once our team got the hang of it, it went really well.

Positioning our formwork was a ‘breeze’ when we got the hang of it

There were many technical details to iron out in this project especially when it came to installing the cable ducts for the post-tensioning.

Lets not forget to seal those post tensioning ducts


More of those beautiful ducts that we all love so much

The day had arrived and my life changing trip I had been planning for some time was finally here. It was unfortunate that I was unable to complete the project I had begun but I knew my team and that the Reservoir was in good hands even though I felt really bad leaving ‘my baby’ behind. I was fortunate to have a team that understood the circumstances and were able to support  me on my endeavors otherwise I may not have found the courage to leave the reservoir without a roof.

Thank you to the entire team whom made the project a success.

My take aways…

I understand now, more than ever the importance of teamwork and open communication.

This project served as a giant step up for me in terms of personal growth within the construction industry. I was able to expand my technical knowledge and skills as well as put the construction management theory into practice. I also learned the importance of carrying out a risk management plan to avoid the kinds of delays which we encountered.

My main lesson taken away from this project was that in order to get things done on this scale, one needs to be able to delegate. Delegation is not simply ‘telling people what to do”. Delegation is a skill which is learned by understanding the task at hand, identifying the  the skills within your team and being able to communicate effectively with the people which make up your team.

Your team must come first.

The team to finish off the reservoir

I hope you enjoyed this piece














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