3 February 2014

Swaziland: Press Attack On Airport 'Corruption'

One of Swaziland's few independent newspapers launched a scathing attack on a senior government civil servant after he refused to answer questions about the controversial Sikhuphe airport.

The airport, which was due to open in June 2010, but is still not completed, is at the centre of corruption allegations relating to contracts and tenders.

The Times Sunday reported that it had attempted to get Bertram Stewart. Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, to answer questions relating to concerns about tenders awarded worth about E12 million (US$1.2 million), but he refused to answer questions.

The newspaper reported (2 February 2014), 'There was also the issue of five fire trucks valued at about E15 million. These were bought in South Africa in 2009, in anticipation of Sikhuphe being in operation by 2010 when South Africa hosted the World Cup. The heavy duty vehicles remained unused for a long time, resulting in two of them developing mechanical faults.

'We questioned all these things and more. Now we are looking into the issue of maintaining the airport.'

The newspaper published a report without Stewart's comments, saying he hung up the phone on its reporter.

It later reported, 'He never wants to be bothered by journalists. He has said quite a few times that he is not accountable to us. We do not understand how that happens because we are not only journalists but citizens of this country. We are taxpayers. If he is not accountable to us, who is he accountable to?'

The Times Sunday added, 'Last Sunday, we continued with our exposes of the wrongs going on at Sikhuphe International Airport. This First World facility is one of the Millennium Projects that have cost over E3 billion in the last decade or so. The budgeted amount was initially E500 million but, for various reasons, it hit the E3billion mark.

'We questioned all these things and more. Now we are looking into the issue of maintaining the airport.'

The Times Sunday editor Innocent Maphalala told his readers, 'I was surprised, therefore, when he appeared on both Channel Swazi and Swazi TV to deny a story we published last Sunday.

'There the PS was, holding three microphones while the television reporters, who probably had not read the story themselves, watched. Yes, they were watching because they did not ask him even one question. Bertram was practically speaking to himself. It was more of a statement than an interview with the TV reporters.

'He was "shocked" that we could even write about something regarding Sikhuphe without consulting either him or Percy Simelane [the government's official spokesperson].

The newspaper reported that Stewart 'featured prominently in most deliberations involving the airport contracts'.

Stewart has not always been so silent over Sikhuphe. Swazi Media Commentary has reported many times that he, had continually mislead the public about Sikhuphe airport and in particular about its readiness to open.

He told the public that it would be ready to open before the start of 2013. It was not and it did not.

In October 2010, Stewart said the airport would be open by the end of that year. It was not.

Stewart was at it again in February 2011, when he confidently told media the airport would be completed by June 2011. It was not. He also said a number of top world airlines (that he declined to name) were negotiating to use Sikhuphe. Nothing happened.

He returned to the theme two months later in April 2011 when this time he said the airport would be open by December 2011. But still no airport.

Media reports in Swaziland suggest the cost of Sikhuphe has been about E3 billion so far from an initial budget of E500 million.

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