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Sunday, 28 November 2010

DISASTER AT SIKHUPHE AIRPORT

The Swaziland Government has agreed to throw another E350 million (50 million US dollars) at the discredited Sikhuphe Airport project.


It turns out that the government’s management of the project has been so poor that it is cheaper to continue building it (because of clauses in contracts with builders and other companies) than to abandon the project.


Sikhuphe, otherwise known as King Mswati III’s vanity project, has already far exceeded its budget and on one estimate could cost one billion US dollars by the time it is finished. It has already missed numerous deadlines for completion and opening.


The building of Sikhuphe was started without any ‘needs assessment’ having been undertaken, nor any clear idea of what it would be used for.


Now, one of Swaziland’s leading pro-democracy activists has pointed out other flaws in the Sikhuphe project.


Musa Hlophe, coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), writing today (28 November 2010) in his regular column in the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in the kingdom, asks what would happen if an aircraft with (say) 400 passengers on board crashed at the airport?


He writes, ‘Assuming that we expanded our country’s ambulance fleet to 200 and each one was able to get to Sikhupe within one hour, how could our hospitals manage with hundreds of extra patients in one day? The closest hospital will be Good Shepherd at Siteki which is not exactly state of the art and the nearest major hospitals are in Manzini and Mbabane. They are already all on their knees, struggling to cope with our current crises of TB, HIV&AIDS.


‘Do our hospitals have a plan to cope with maybe 400 foreign people all needing bed spaces urgently? Do we have enough doctors and nurses trained in accident and emergency and most importantly do we have the necessary medicines, equipment and blood for this level of disaster? In a country that cannot even supply its own citizens with the proper drugs to prevent a child dying from rabies because of the bite of one dog - I doubt it. I doubt they could cope with fifty people never mind four hundred.


‘Sikhuphe’s business model to attract major foreign passenger carriers is already flawed because of the competition from four other regional airports within half a day’s drive - Kruger National in Mbombela (Nelspruit), Maputo in Mozambique, King Shaka in Durban and, of course, OR Tambo in Johannesburg. But what really stands out for me, as someone who has worked for businesses for a long time, is what little proper risk analysis has gone on here. Can you imagine an airline that wanted to carry rich western investors and tourists that would risk the lives of hundreds of its passengers? Can you imagine them ignoring the lack of medical systems, equipment, personnel or facilities to cope with even a relatively minor crash that required treatment of only a quarter of their passengers and staff?


‘If we adapt our medical systems to meet this need, will we take resources away from our families who are living with and dying from HIV&AIDS? So I ask a question that does not seem to have been considered in public before. How will the disaster plan for Sikhupe affect the provision of health care for the rest of us? Will the health budget be diverted from the families of our sick and dying to allow for the imagined needs of strangers who will only stay a few hours in our country? Has Minister Xaba and his team even considered it - have they thought it through? What do they say to the foreign investors?’


Hlophe also questions whether the airport was really hit by a tornado earlier this year (2010) or whether this was just made up people at the airport to cover up the fact that they were behind schedule with the building.


He writes, ‘I see that the cabinet and parliament have authorised even more money to be paid to complete the airport in the same week when Finance Minister Sithole has been decrying the lack of proper control of government finances and the continuing corruption by civil servants that he is powerless to sack. Sikhupe has run massively over budget and over time.


‘It was so bad that in March the people at the airport had to make up a story about a tornado hitting the building and putting back construction by many months. Who has ever heard of a tornado that damages only one building but leaves the rest of the neighbouring countryside completely unharmed? I have heard rumours that the actual runway is so poorly constructed that it is not even flat enough to land planes safely.


‘I also hear that the internal equipment that has been specified is so expensive to maintain that many US airports will not use it. How can we pour money down the drain like this? The small number of planes that fly to and from Matsapha are already only half full, if that airport was operating at full capacity then maybe there would be an argument for Sikhuphe - until then there simply is not. I hope that the forensic audit that the cabinet proposes looks at the issues of tendering, the business plan, the corruption, the quality of the work already done and sets out recommendations to the future.


‘Most of all I hope that the auditors make the common sense recommendation that no more money should be spent on this white elephant at this time of deep financial crisis. I cannot see any realistic scenarios where it will recoup its costs. No business person I know of thinks that it will ever attract regular business other than some cargo planes and most of us see it as a continuing barrier to development and not a creator of wealth.’

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