By Anna Majavu
About 150 people blockaded a road in Alicedale, near Makhanda, on 11 and 12 May after a Transnet subcontractor, Lennings Rail of Boksburg, allegedly skipped town without paying workers it had hired to fix the railway in April this year.
The workers, who are all residents of the small and impoverished town, were hired to fix and replace sleepers on the rail track in Alicedale for 10 days in April this year. But they say they still have not been paid, and that Lennings Rail managers have now vanished.
Lennings Rail, owned by Sandton-based Mathupha Capital, describes itself as “the pre-eminent track work contractor in Southern Africa”. According to the business press, Mathupha Capital is also involved in manufacturing sleepers for Transnet through Rail 2 Rail.
“We were hired on 11 April for ten days to fix the railways, and were promised payment between 5 and 7 May, but were never paid,” said Alicedale resident and worker on the project, Heidi Ruiters. She said that Lennings Rail managers switch their phones off and are difficult to contact. “They suddenly told us that they will pay us on 2 June but we did not agree to that. We phoned them to say we will not allow it, but their phones are on voicemail”, said Ruiters.
Ruiters added that her ankle was injured on the job. She was taken by Lennings Rail to Mercantile hospital in Gqeberha but they did not supply her with money they had promised so that she could attend follow-up appointments. “I still have not seen the physiotherapist I was supposed to see. Up until today, I never saw a doctor again”, said Ruiters, adding that her ankle is still injured.
Transnet said it had “noted with great concern the non-payment of workers” by Lennings Rail, not only in Alicedale in the Eastern Cape, but also in Hotazel in Northern Cape.
“Lennings Rail was appointed by TFR to provide rail maintenance services during the PE Manganese Maintenance Shutdown period which was conducted in April 2023”, a Transnet spokesperson told Grocott’s Mail.
Community activist Khayelethu Nyamakazi told Grocott’s Mail that the community had called on Transnet to come to the town and make sure the workers were paid, but had not received feedback from the state owned rail company.
“There are also taxis and bed and breakfasts which this company has not paid. People are stuck, there is no progress and we are waiting for Transnet to come and solve the problem. We cannot find any person from this subcontractor, and that is why people are saying they are not going to stop this protest until they get their money. People have that tendency of ignoring the situation until it gets out of control”, said Nyamakazi.
He also appealed to the town’s councillor and to Makana municipality’s Executive Mayor, Yandiswa Vara to come to Alicedale and see what they could do to put pressure on Transnet to pay the workers.
Nyamakazi alleged that Lennings Rail was “known for making workers unhappy in Empangeni and Kimberley. We have a question as to why Transnet is keeping this company in place?”
One of the bed and breakfast owners who has not been paid by Lennings Rail is Eli Konstant, who owns Addo Reach and Hein’s Cottage in Alicedale. She confirmed that her establishment had not been paid by Lennings Rail, and said she had been told by Lennings Rail today that Transnet had not paid them and so they could not pay the workers or service providers.
But a Transnet spokesperson told Grocott’s Mail “the contracts that Lennings Rail enters into for any goods and services are their responsibility and are thus accountable for meeting those contractual obligations”.
Konstant said Alicedale residents were “at the mercy of employment availability which is so thin on the ground for us here in Alicedale,” adding that she hoped everyone would be paid soon because she feared that burning tyres might cause the town’s dry trees to catch on fire.
By the afternoon of 12 May, Nyamakazi said that police had informed the protestors that they would be paid on Monday. But this could not be confirmed. “We thank the community liaison officer, Mandisa Bavuma, for the prominent role she has played in trying to ensure that the workers get paid”, Nyamakazi told Grocott’s Mail.
Lennings Rail chief executive officer, Ian Barnard, first told Grocott’s Mail he was in a meeting, then that he would comment within 30 minutes. Eventually, he failed to explain why his company had not paid the workers, only saying “currently we are not commenting”.
(This article was updated on 15 May to include comment from Transnet).