TAXPAYERS will shell out R7m in penalties and wages for an Eastern Cape road construction project where no work has taken place since September last year.

This is the contract amount that will have to be paid if the road is not completed‚ as well as the penalties and wages.

The company was appointed to resurface a 17km stretch of road that joins the R61 near Port St Johns. The new road will connect Isilimela Hospital to Port St Johns.

One of the road workers‚ Xolile Mbelentshe‚ said: "We have not been working for three weeks now after being stopped by people in the area. They (residents) all wanted to be employed in this project."

He said it was their first day back on site on Thursday. But tensions remain.

Roads and public works department spokesman Mphumzi Zuzile said troubles had started in September, when villagers started blockading the road‚ demanding to be employed.

"We are worried because there’s a possibility that the company will pull out and we are going to lose millions of rand‚" Mr Zuzile said.

The protests have resulted in cars being stoned‚ pupils pulled out of school and road workers threatened.

Mr Zuzile said that last week, locals wielding pangas had demanded to be given jobs on the project and chased other workers from the site.

This was the latest of several confrontations. He said the project had been at a total standstill since the start of the year.

The roads department now must pay up to R180‚000 for each day of work lost. The contract states that the department has a legal obligation to protect the company.

At least 42 days of work have been lost so far.

"We appeal to the community of Port St Johns to allow the company to work on site‚" he said.

Public works MEC Thandiswa Marawu had intervened and tried to resolve the impasse. Meetings were held with representatives from the Port St Johns local municipality‚ African National Congress regional structures and the community.

This week Ms Marawu met traditional leaders‚ taxi associations and local businesses.

"They are going to benefit as well from this road‚" said Mr Zuzile.

The spokesman said 200 locals were employed on the project and they stood to lose their jobs if the company withdrew. He said police were monitoring the situation.

The project manager for HHO Africa Infrastructure Engineers in East London‚ Randall Dirks‚ referred questions to the provincial roads department.

TMG Digital