Contractors must face strict accountability

One of the issues that is coming up with the dramatic expansion in Government capital spending is how to select the contractors for the many new projects, with the odd dud apparently making it through the vetting and tender process.

Fairly obviously, the Government likes to spread the work around where possible to local businesses near where the work is required so as to spread the benefits of Government spending.

This allows new firms to bid so Government business is not restricted to an inner circle who might think they have the right to split the work up between themselves.

But problems can arise. A new company, although properly equipped, paying taxes and having all the other requirements to make it to the potential procurement list, might not have the full expertise or might be willing to take a chance. 

The same applies to local businesses in some areas who fail when they are given a chance.

Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister Felix Mhona, whose ministry hires a lot of contractors because of the central role it plays in development, has made it clear that he is not interested in giving second chances. 

If you foul up you are off the Government list of acceptable contractors, regardless of who you are or the other social benefits that might arise from cutting you some slack.

Minister Mhona simply wants a first class job done, and does not appear particularly fussed who is doing that first class work, just so long as the Second Republic gets value for the very large sums now being spent through his Ministry.

The minister was commenting after looking at some recently repaired roads in and around Kwekwe, work that was ordered and paid for under the Emergency Roads Rehabilitation Programme Phase 2, the major undertaking to get at least the major roads across Zimbabwe back into usable shape.

Some of the repairs, and in several cases the complete reconstruction, of roads has been first class meeting a lot of exacting standards. 

Motorists and transport operators are happy that they no longer have to crawl, or replace their suspensions fairly frequently. But when the potholes reappear soon after the first few falls of rain, or a few months after the repairs were finished, obviously they were not done properly.

Many people seem to think that repairing a road simply involves filling the potholes and then putting a patch of bitumen on top. Sometimes they are right, but not often. 

A road, especially a major road, is far more than a layer of sealer on top of a strip of ground. The top layer of bitumen mixed with carefully-sized stones, the macadam layer, is just that, the icing on top of the cake. 

The main part of any road is the roadbed, usually built up in layers of stone, gravel and clay. The top layer just seals the surface, preventing the road from being eroded by storm water, and provides a hard surface, to make driving easier.

Cracks appear, and some develop into potholes. Many of these potholes and similar damage cannot just be filled with a tipper of clay soil. 

They need to be carefully dug out, that is the bit of road around them needs to be dug out as well, and then the resulting hole carefully refilled with the compacted layers of stone, gravel and clay, to make the filled area indistinguishable from the original roadbed that it now forms part of. Once all that is done you can reseal with a patch.

Sometimes there might be a section of road where the original roadbed has collapsed. This happens and the repair then involves digging out what was there and building anew, sometimes with design improvements to make sure the new section of road bed does not have the faults of the older bed.

This can involve upgrading the road drainage or deepening the section of the roadbed.

Even where the road being repaired was properly designed and built for the traffic, repairs involve some careful investigation and probably as much digging as filling. 

Winning a tender by planning on simplifying some of this work is not the best business move. Any company tendering needs to examine the physical road first before working out the costs and then submitting a bid.

At times a road cannot be repaired, it must be rebuilt. This was the case with a large chunk of Seke Road in Harare for example, although the winning contractor did notice that some of the required extra depth of roadbed could be won by reusing the stone in the eroded and broken-up surface layers, crushing and compacting this layer to add to the roadbed before putting on a new surface.

Just because there have been the odd duds, the Government should not abandon its policy of spreading the work around, but it perhaps needs to have more detailed tender documents, carefully listing what is required and needing to have bidders explain, in detail, how they plan to meet those requirements.

At the same time contracts need to be drawn up very carefully, with the standards and the tests set, along with the clauses that require substandard work to be redone properly. 

In the private sector, the final payment in a system where progress payments are made is often delayed until everything pans out properly. Since that final payment is usually the profit, the contractor can cope with a delay since the progress payments have paid for the materials and the labour used.

There will be some contractors who have never done business before for the Government whose work stands up to the strict scrutiny required, and these contractors can now be kept on another list, the one where their next bid will at least be carefully read since the Government’s technical teams now know they can do the work.

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