Another government security cluster building shut over unsafe conditions

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Days after the South African Air Force’s Headquarters in Pretoria was closed to employees due to malfunctioning ventilation systems, the national head office of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Pretoria was declared unfit for human use and evacuated.

Trade union Solidarity said that on Tuesday 27 February, its Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Division, together with an inspector from the Department of Labour, paid a visit to the head office at the so-called Telkom Towers, which was bought and renovated eight years ago by the South African Police Service (SAPS) for nearly R900 million.

The visit to Telkom Towers North was the result of numerous complaints and several unanswered letters from the OHS to the SAPS and Lieutenant General Simo W Chamane, divisional commissioner of the SAPS’s Legal Services.

Johan Böning, head of the OHS division at Solidarity, said several complaints were received from police members, including allegations such as the shortage of clean drinking water, poor and broken air conditioning and ventilation, broken and dirty toilets, closed and unmarked emergency exits, broken lifts, inadequate fire fighting equipment and general dirty and contaminated office spaces.

“Among these complaints were claims of respiratory illnesses and allergic reactions, presumably due to dirty office space and poor ventilation, and workers also complained of dirty carpets and problems with lice and cockroaches,” Solidarity said in a statement on Wednesday.

According to Renate Pieterse, network coordinator of Solidarity’s public industry, this head office is the place where the SAPS’s legal department and corporate management department, among others, must work.

“The Minister of Police (Bheki Cele) and National Police Commissioner (Fannie Masemola) are also supposed to sit there. The upper floor where Minister Cele’s designated office is, has been newly renovated and secured with good technological security devices. This while the rest of the 24 floors are considered unliveable.

“After the Department of Labour and Solidarity’s OHS Department completed the inspection, the Department issued an immediate notice of improvement and the building was evacuated immediately,” Pieterse said.

Furthermore, Solidarity said the building does not have the necessary Certificates of Occupancy or approval from the fire brigade. Therefore, the SAPS head office may only reopen its doors after a Certificate of Occupancy has been issued and an inspection by the fire brigade has also been carried out.

According to Helgard Cronjé, deputy general secretary of the Public Industry at Solidarity, “it is shocking to realise that the country’s official law enforcers cannot even comply with basic security legislation. Yet Minister Cele can use police money and time to fly with a police helicopter to the ANC’s manifesto launch in Durban, but back home the head office is completely dilapidated.

“So, what are the priorities – ANC politics or the safety of citizens? I think the answer is obvious. And it is a very serious matter. The impact on worker morale in the SAPS and its effect on fighting crime is very serious.”

The Telkom Tower complex was bought by government in 2015 for R645 million from the Telkom Retirement Fund when Telkom relocated its Head office. It was procured to be used for housing government departments.

The complex comprises of 10 buildings that measure 221 954 square meters of lettable office accommodation. There are 2 234 parking bays. Renovations worth more than R200 million were still underway last year, with a completion date of 2026.

“There have been two contracts to repair and renovate Telkom Towers South. The first was finalised in December 2021. The current project being undertaken by Coega at Telkom Towers North is ongoing,” Department of Public Works and Infrastructure spokesperson Thami Mchunu told the Citizen in mid-2023.

SAAF HQ relocated

The South African Air Force (SAAF) this week also had its headquarters shut down, after a 19-23 February inspection by the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) found issues with the health and safety of the breathable air, the high temperatures experienced in the building, and the challenges pertaining to ventilation of fresh air in the building.

A notice circulated to employees using the headquarters building advised members to execute their duties from home between 26 February and 11 March. They were told to join a WhatsApp group call every morning to report their readiness for work.

The SAAF in a statement said that due to challenges regarding elevated temperatures, and ventilation within the Loftus Building, a Prohibition Notice was issued, prohibiting the use of areas lacking proper ventilation. Key personnel have been relocated to alternative offices around the Pretoria region.

“Over the past months, SAAF actively tried to mitigate the temperature issue by installing mobile air conditioning. Additionally, contingent plans were communicated to the various directorates advising the use of discretion when the temperatures reached extreme levels. However, the condition of the Loftus building deteriorated. Members have been directed to work remotely or from other units/offices in Pretoria,” the SAAF said.

“For those working within the Loftus Building, strict guidelines are enforced, including the continuous wearing of masks, application of sanitizing protocols, limited occupancy, and adherence to specified working hours.”

The South African National Defence Union (Sandu) said the situation at the Loftus headquarters building is further complicated by the revelation that the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) holds responsibility for the maintenance and repair of such facilities.

“Notably, the SAAF headquarters, in service for 30 years and designed to accommodate 1 200 employees across five levels, is now functioning with only one out of six roof-mounted temperature control systems operational. Additionally, of the three systems tasked with managing the temperatures of the subterranean floors, two are at half capacity, and one is entirely defunct due to obsolescence. The challenge is compounded by the obsolescence of the components for these systems, rendering them irreparable,” Sandu said in a statement.

“The shutdown of the South African Airforce Headquarters in Pretoria, triggered by a critical failure of its ventilation systems, highlights the severe implications of insufficient funding and maintenance within the SANDF. The DPWI’s role in this predicament points to a broader systemic issue and pattern of dereliction that requires urgent attention,” said Sandu National Secretary, Advocate Pikkie Greeff.

“Our SA Airforce members deserve a safe and healthy working environment and it is crucial that immediate measures are taken to address these deficiencies and safeguard their welfare.”