By Jeffrey Muvundusi
Zimbabwe’s financial meltdown has brought the construction of the Egodini Mall — set to be the biggest public transport terminus boasting a retail section and parking bays in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo — to a screeching halt.
The project, touted as a massive development, which, if completed, would change the face of the city business-wise, has been suspended or scaled back amid a cash crunch and steep price hikes that have hit the South African contractor.
The contractor has not been on site for months amid murmurs among councillors and the ordinary Bulawayo folk. Across the city, it’s the same story.
Experts say construction sites have also gone dormant, with projects either suspended or delayed.
At the Egodini site, test holes drilled by geo-technical and hydrological teams remain in place, but the work has stopped.
The $60 million mall was set to open its doors to the public this year, but has been further pushed back because the contractor is not ready, the city council has said.
In 2014, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) took a brave step to bring a new and colossal development to a city whose occupants have long complained about marginalisation.
The multimillion-dollar Egodini Mall project has, right from its onset, suffered several false starts.
At one point in 2016, the council set a date for the ground-breaking ceremony but it turned out to be pie in the sky as the event was postponed indefinitely following squabbles that erupted over its implementation soon after the signing of the agreement.
South African contractor, civil engineering firm Terracotta Trading (Private) Limited, won the tender to upgrade the former Basch Street Terminus into a regional public transport hub in 2012 ahead of two other companies.
The project, which was initially expected to cost $60 million, is expected to provide shopping convenience for travellers as well as the commuting public.
The project is on a Build-Operate-Transfer basis and would come at no cost to council, officials said then.
Bulawayo was set to ultimately own it once Terracotta had recouped its investment.
The refurbishment was expected to see the terminus handling at least three million travellers per month, according to the BCC.
As part of the redesign of the terminus area, BCC would expand existing roads into the site and create dedicated pedestrian routes to increase traffic access.
The site was set to include a transport hub located on the Basch Street ground level, retail sections and parking bays.
However, after several attempts to relocate hundreds of vendors and commuter operators who were operating at the terminus, the council finally managed to cordon off the site last year, paving way for the construction process.
Transporters and vendors were pushed to new sites in the central business district in a development that created congestion in the new areas.
In October last year, the contractor commissioned a contact centre at the site, in what made many to believe that the project was finally taking off.
Soon after that, thousands of desperate Zimbabweans besieged the site after the contractor advertised for jobs.
Despite all those overtures, the project is yet to take off.
Insiders said the unpredictable environment after economic reforms in October 2018, derailed the contractors’ planning.
The apparent inactivity has actually forced government to intervene.
“We summoned the directors to my office to explain the delay, and in their explanation, they said they were putting final touches before construction work can begin. However, we have not seen any movement yet and we have summoned them again,” Bulawayo Metropolitan Affairs minister Judith Ncube said.
“Government is worried over the delays, and we want to find out and understand from them what is stalling the whole project. If they have any problems, a solution has to be found; Bulawayo awaits that project.”
Government officials, such as former Local Government ministry secretary George Mlilo and former Resident minister Nomthandazo Eunice Moyo, at one point raised concerns over the deal and accused Bulawayo councillors of underhand dealings.
They claimed that some senior council officials were linked to the South African company that was awarded a 99-year lease to the terminus.
Bulawayo mayor Solomon Mguni did not mince his words. He expressed grave concern over the delays at the construction site, signalling that the contractor might be living on borrowed time.
“Councillors’ opinions are divided. Some want us to cancel the deal, others want us to engage the contractor. We are yet to receive the progress report from council management and officials on the current state of work at Egodini.
“When the progress report comes to councillors through the relevant committees, I am sure councillors will be able to make a decision on the fate of the contractor,” Mguni warned.
The mayor said the contractor should either show indicators of progress or ship out. As mayor of the city, I take note of the delay. I am obviously concerned and disappointed that we may not meet the timelines. However, it’s not for me to take a decision on the fate of the contractor. It will be collective decision of councillors.
“Of course, we will be guided by the executive management’s progress report and input from the contractor. We acknowledge that the project has been off to a false start, but need to find a way of completing it without compromising on our contractual obligations. We can’t afford further delays on that project. It’s either the contractor shapes up or ships out,” the mayor bellowed.
Terracotta Trading director Thulani Moyo — who is based in South Africa — did not respond to questions emailed to him.
However, he recently told the media that he was still confident the project would take off.
He said nine professional teams inclusive of geo-technicians, civil engineers, structural engineers, self-poisoning engineers among others were already conducting preliminary works.
He also added that the programme will be in three phases with the first one expected to be complete by end of this year.
Moyo, however, admitted that the economy was having a huge toll on the project.
“Phase two, we all know that the Zimbabwean economy is not doing well at the moment. As the economy improves, then we will do phase two and as the economy improves, we then do phase three. That is the way it will actually works.
“Unfortunately, obviously we do have a problem following the fuel price increase. Even some of our people are coming back saying the price that I had quoted I can’t offer it anymore while others say they can’t do it all together,” Moyo said.
Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (Bupra) acting coordinator Emmanuel Ndlovu described the project as a total hoax.
“There was no diligence done to determine the preparedness of the company in completing the task. The whole Terracotta deal including its company is a total hoax.
“We were duped. There were red flags initially with allegations that some councillors and council officials had pocketed some money from the so-called Terracotta. I think this is an eye opener. Private developers need to be properly regulated,” said Ndlovu.
Affirmative Action Group (AAG) regional president Reginald Shoko said the dying economy had a negative impact on the project.
“When one looks at the architectural designs presented about Egodini and the activity on the ground, there are serious doubts if the said targets will be met, but like all things in the country, the project might also be suffering from the effects of economic performance.
“But the sectional construction deadlines can be met. The project promoters have been found wanting in terms of communicating developments which has left the people to speculate and create theories in most cases, very negative, creating a crisis of expectations to the ordinary citizenry and above all put pressure on the local authority given the issues around the project at its inception,” Shoko said. DailyNews