South Africa’s great road swindle

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Joburg highwaysThis article first appeared in Noseweek (March 2017).

It’s long been known that South African motorists have been fleeced when it comes to road construction costs, but by how much has always been a matter of speculation.

Now we have a better idea. The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) to upgrade the highways between Joburg and Pretoria, originally costed at R4,6bn in the mid-2000s for a 340km upgrade, ended up costing just shy of R18bn for 193kms. After a year-long study involving whistleblowers, road engineers and quantity surveyors, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) concluded that the 193km freeway improvement project should have cost no more than R8bn, even allowing for cost escalations and other contingencies. That’s a R10bn overcharge, enough to build 40 Nkandlas (the name of President Jacob Zuma’s taxpayer-funded private residence in Kwazulu-Natal).

The client in this case was none other than SA National Roads Agency (Sanral), which paid an average of R86.6m per kilometre, between two and three times what comparable roads in Africa (and SA) would cost.

If the R10bn cost overrun is correct – and several industry insiders claim it is – how did the construction companies pull it off? And why are no construction executives in jail for this swindle?

In 2006 there was a secretive road contractors meeting attended by Basil Read, Concor (part of Murray & Roberts), Haw & Inglis, Grinaker LTA and Raubex where the colluders agreed to allocate tenders for the construction of roads. At this meeting it was also agreed that those firms not interested in winning tenders would nevertheless submit “cover bids”, which are sham bids intended to lose while lending legitimacy to the tender process. The losers would receive compensation, or “loser’s fees”, from the winners.

How we miss Mbeki and Manuel

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Their economic record beats anything that came before or after

This article first appeared in Moneyweb

Former SA President Thabo Mbeki

Former SA President Thabo Mbeki

If we are to measure our political leaders on economic performance alone, Thabo Mbeki was our best president in the last 30 years, and Trevor Manuel our best finance minister.

As the accompanying graph shows, President Jacob Zuma has been bad for growth, but arguably better than FW De Klerk, who had to contend with the tail end of apartheid and international sanctions – which deprived SA of the capital it needed for growth and investment.

President Nelson Mandela had a mixed performance, with economic growth veering between -2% and +2%, for many of the same reasons confronted by De Klerk. Foreign investors remained wary of SA’s democratic experiment, as shown by the sluggish growth in foreign direct investment (FDI), until Mandela ventured overseas and exercised his considerable charm in enticing investors to these shores. But it was Mbeki who reaped the benefit of Mandela’s international outreach. Under President Zuma, FDI growth has come to a virtual stall.

Mbeki delivered the most consistent economic growth – admittedly helped by a commodity boom which ended abruptly as his term of office came to a close in 2008 – and Trevor Manuel as finance minister for 13 years, until 2009 delivered the lowest budget deficits. Manuel’s steady hand on the fiscus was likewise aided by the aforementioned commodity boom, which fattened tax receipts and reduced the need for large budget deficits.

The Joburg township where outlaws make the rules

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

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A sign above a disused shaft warns miners not to enter

Illegal gold mining sustains Lindelane

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in Groundup and Times Live.

It’s dangerous, often fatal, but illegal underground gold mining is pretty much all that sustains the economy of Lindelane, a sprawling favela of tin shacks and shebeens near Benoni, to the east of Johannesburg. Try as they might, the police are powerless to combat an industry that government, mining houses, trade unions and other respectable voices want stamped out.

In Lindelane, and neighbouring Kingsway, each morning thousands of young men squeeze through tiny openings into abandoned underground mines, armed with chisels, hammers and battery-powered torches. Underneath Johannesburg, from Springs in the east to Roodepoort in the west, a network of disused mine tunnels probably several thousand kilometres in length stands as a monument to the city’s former glory years as the gold centre of the world. The golden years are gone, leaving a rabbit warren of subterranean passages now occupied by these men and the gangs to which they owe fealty.

Soweto man’s house sold behind his back for R100

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Solomon Nhlapo is accused of trespassing in his own house

This article first appeared in Groundup.

solomon-nhlapo-2Solomon Nhlapo, 65, is squatting in the Soweto house where his mother lived since 1965. Police have told him he is trespassing in his home which was sold in 2014 for a paltry R100. Nedbank apparently managed to obtain default judgment against him, even though he has written confirmation that his late mother’s loan is paid up.

Nhlapo turned up in the South Gauteng High Court in August last year with proof from Nedbank that his mother’s home was fully paid up. He was trying to defend himself, without legal representation, against an eviction order. To no avail. The court awarded the new owner an eviction order against him, which he is now fighting with the help of the Lungelo Lethu Human Rights Foundation, a group helping hundreds of people in similar situations across Gauteng.

The lucky buyer of this bargain R100 house at the sheriff’s auction is Nedbank itself, which offloaded it to a company called Pyramed for R51,000, which then sold it to a company called CC Trade 57 for R18,700, which then sold it to Company Unique Finance (CUF), which then sold the property to another buyer for R350,000.

Nano-technology could be a game changer for gold mines

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Is this nano-technology breakthrough to gold mining what Google is to the internet?

gold-pourThis article first appeared in Mineweb.

Nano-technology could come to the rescue of ailing gold companies.  A new recovery method using nano-technology promises to improve gold recoveries by upwards of 40%, and in some tests has achieved improvements of an astonishing 90%. For marginal mine operators, this is could clearly be a game changer.

In August, the technology transitioned from pilot phase to full production at Nevada-based New Gold Recovery (NGR), and is already attracting interest from mining companies around the world. New York-based investment firm Unicore Group has taken a minority share in the company and sees this as one of the most exciting additions to its portfolio.

UniCore Group’s senior managing partner, Herve Ime, says the expansion possibilities for NGR, given the parlous state of gold mining worldwide, is huge. “We decided to back NGR when it was still in its embryonic phase and the technology had not been commercially applied. The gold mining industry is crying out for something like this. We see this as a killer technology, rather like what Google is to the internet.”

Sanral’s mysterious and wishful accounting

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

When will the roads agency admit that most of its e-tolls debt is unrecoverable?

This article first appeared in Moneyweb.

etoll-gantry-2Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) raised some interesting questions about the South African National Road Agency’s (Sanral) 2016 annual report which came out recently, specifically Sanral’s lack of enthusiasm for writing off unpaid e-tolls, which many suspect will never be recovered.

The balance sheet shows trade receivables of R7.66 billion, up from R4.96 billion in 2015 and R1.15 billion in 2014. Is Sanral continuing to count unrecoverable e-tolls as an asset on its balance sheet?

“Had Sanral accounted prudently and honestly as regards these unrecoverable amounts, it would have been forced to report a far greater loss than the R954 milllion reported for the 2016 financial year,” says Outa.

Airports Company of SA minorities sue for fair value buyout

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

or-tambo-airport

Minorities say they are economic hostages to the company

This article first appeared in Moneyweb.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but there was a time when the government seemed serious about privatising and listing the Airports Company of SA (ACSA), which manages SA’s nine airports. Private investors were encouraged to acquire shares at a pre-listing price, and many did, among them African Harvest Strategic Investments and empowerment shareholders who paid with debt.

Among the early investors was Aeroporti di Roma (ADR), which acquired 20% for about R890 million in 1998, or R8.19 a share. This valued ACSA at about R4 billion at the time. With no prospect of an IPO on the horizon, in 2005 ADR sold its shares to the Public Investment Corporation for R16.75 a share, more than doubling its initial investment.

But when minorities asked to be bought out, they were offered R12.87 a share – roughly 40% of ACSA’s net asset value (NAV), despite a 2014 valuation by Deloitte of R18 to R22 a share. In the same year ACSA did its own valuation exercise which valued the shares at just R10.36, less than half the R25.37 NAV a share disclosed in its own financial statements for 2014.

Presidential housing project mired in fraud and corruption

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Hundreds of residents of Gauteng townships cheated out of housing

This article first appeared in Groundup.

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A 2010 presidential project intended to house shackdwellers in the south of Johannesburg is mired in corruption and wholesale land theft, with hundreds of residents cheated out of houses they paid for.

Those who have attempted to get to the bottom of the theft have been threatened and, in one case, kidnapped.

GroundUp spoke to dozens of residents of Thulamntwana, near Orange Farm, who say they paid up to R25,000 to secure housing units in the township, only to find that the units had been sold to other buyers. They have been trying for four years to get their houses or to get their money back, without success.

The town of Harrismith gets a reprieve for now

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

This story first appeared in Noseweek.

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SA National Roads Agency’s (Sanral) determination to push through proposals to build the controversial De Beers Pass Route, which will shave just 14kms of the existing route at a cost of close to R10bn, was slapped down by the Department of Environmental Affairs in June this year. The route preferred by Sanral would by-pass the Free State town of Harrismith and put thousands of people out of work as dozens of businesses currently dependent on traffic passing between Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal would close down.

Those who have been following Sanral’s apparent obsession with building the De Beers Pass Route (DBPR) have long suspected a deeper agenda. The concession to operate the current route between Cedara, near Durban, and Heidelberg in Gauteng, expires in 13 years. No business generating R400bn over the 30 year life of the project is going to just turn off the lights in 2029 and hand back the road to Sanral, as required in terms of the original concession contract signed in 1999.