Community consultation is the key to resolving property development issues

Community consultation is the key to resolving property development issues

by Janine Espin

The construction sector is in dire straits, and due to slow economic growth many constructions companies are under immense pressure resulting in retrenchments and possible business closure.

In addition, many problems and expectations arise when new projects are earmarked for rural communities. This is largely due to miscommunication between the community and the construction company.

The frustrations and expectations by the communities have, in some instances, led to construction projects being held ransom. Recently, Aveng-Strabag, in conjunction with South African and Belgian engineering firms, decided to terminate the R1.6 billion contract to build a massive bridge over the Mtentu River in the Eastern Cape. The 1.1 km, bridge forms part of the South African National Roads Agency Limited’s (Sanral’s) N2 Wild Coast road project. Should it be completed, it will be one of the longest main-span balanced cantilever bridges in the world, reaching heights of around 220 m.

TheAveng-Strabagjoint venture cited excessive demands by the community as the reason for choosing to cut their losses. In another instance, a construction site was closed due to the fact that the workers hired from the community wanted bonuses simply for attending work.

Often the demands from the community may be seen as unrealistic when viewed by the construction company. Representatives from the community may have their own power plays and would like to show the rest of the community and the construction company how important they are by calling for community protests.

These demands may be avoided by construction companies being proactive on how issues are initially communicated between themselves and community leaders. On a broader scale, these issues are part of larger problems within the impoverished rural areas in South Africa.

Unfortunately, the fact that there is a beginning and an end date to each construction project is often not communicated to members of the community – or they simply refuse to understand this concept. Community members frequently remain firm that they should be employed on a permanent basis, even though the construction project will come to an end.

The construction industry can greatly benefit from surrounding communities but there needs to be a balance when it comes to employing local people as opposed to employing outside people with the right expertise.

Understanding community dynamics before breaking ground is essential to a successful construction project, particularly in rural South Africa. When working within a community it can be helpful to appoint an outside consultancy to act as a facilitator and intermediary between the construction company and the community.

This intermediary should look at all points of view – from community issues to the construction project. This same intermediary can help advise the construction project on how to avoid potential pitfalls and protests, for example. The consultancy should research similar big companies that have previously been involved in that community, highlight red flags and how the community reacted – positively or negatively – to decisions made by the company. The consultation company can also advise on the strategy to follow to mitigate risk.

Before commencing with the project perhaps one of the best avenues is for the construction company to conducts skills assessment tests among community members who would like to be considered for employment.

This is not to say the construction company should put the project at risk. However, there is an advantage to recognising previous experience and thereby including members of the community. Many with building skills, but who lack formal qualifications, or who may have letters of recommendation from previous employers, could still be part of the project due to their vast experience.

Construction companies are not legally required to upgrade the skills of locals. However, businesses that embrace good corporate governance in their corporate policy, should ask themselves what legacy they would like to leave? Significant positive brand building and leaving a long-term positive legacy are achieved with skills upgrade programmes that enable community members to work on the next project. This makes construction projects more sustainable for the community.

Skills upgrading programmes may also assist in combating unreasonable demands from the community. If a company is proactive in leaving a positive legacy and spends money on skills upgrade training, then locals could be less inclined to follow disruptive elements within the community.

Janine Espin is the managing director at Economic Development Solutions, a consultancy that specialises in enabling transformation.