PetroSA filling station collects dust

Since it was completed, the R14m Thembisile Hani Integrated Energy Centre has stood empty.
Since it was completed, the R14m Thembisile Hani Integrated Energy Centre has stood empty.
Image: GroundUp/Yamkela Ntshongwana

Chief Sebenzile Nyangilizwe Mathanzima of Qamata, near Queenstown, has vowed 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 a PetroSA filling station on the R61, about 18km from Cofimvaba. It was completed three years ago, but it has never operated.

In its 2016 report, PetroSA said it committed R14.5m for its construction. It said that: “After completion in December 2016, an initial number of 14 permanent jobs (manager, four cashiers, petrol attendants and cleaners) will be created. Other supplementary projects include a car wash and computer laboratory [sic].”

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 in the surrounding villages,” she said.

PetroSA told GroundUp it had “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 poverty alleviation in RSA’s rural hinterlands”.

But Chief Mathanzima said Intsika Yethu Local Municipality had 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 said the land belonged to the traditional leadership, not the municipality. The municipality said 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 said gave 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 of 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 said 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 was 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 decentralise 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, the municipality was taking it from him.

Soon I will die and I have nothing to leave my family
Vulindlela Mbotoli

“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 it would object. It refused permission.

“Months later, the municipality wrote me a letter offering to partner with me 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 would 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 would not take orders from me as I was offering them a different piece of land. They said they were the government after all.”

GroundUp was unable to reach Vimbayo for comment, but ​​​Shasha said he could not comment because he was 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 were 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.”

This story may seem insignificant. After all, it’s just an unused R14m petrol station (and internet café grandly described as a “computer laboratory”). But it exemplifies the poor governance of the Eastern Cape and PetroSA, a government-owned company.

The answer to who owns the land and who has the right to use it should lie in a deeds office, in the form of properly-prepared, signed and stored contracts. But it seems that, 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 café.

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

  • This story, and commentary accompanying it, was originally published by GroundUp.

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