24 May 2018

Namibia: Education Ministry Blocks President-Backed School

The education ministry has rejected a proposal by a private company - that is supported by President Hage Geingob - to surrender a plot worth over N$20 million in exchange for a free school in a Windhoek low-income area.

There are, however, claims that there is more to that transaction than meets the eye.

The decision by the education ministry, led by Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, to block the proposal by the private company effectively goes against the wishes of the project supported by Geingob, adding to the suspicion that the two political leaders are not on good talking terms as before.

This land transaction revolves around a proposal by a South African company called Curros Holdings which owns an elite school in the city, Windhoek Gymnasium.

The land (Erf 350) that measures around seven hectares (equal to seven average football fields) is in Rietfontein Street, Kleine Kuppe.

Curros Holdings wants to build a N$200 million primary school and sports facilities to accommodate about 1 000 pupils and be a feeder to the nearby Windhoek Gymnasium, which currently offers both primary and secondary education.

The catch, however, is that the land was reserved for the education ministry in 2012, although it is yet to be paid for. Curros Holdings is now asking the education minister to inform the City of Windhoek that the ministry does not want the land any more. Once that is done, Curros would then buy the property from the municipality.

Part of the deal was that Curros would build 24 classrooms, washing facilities, a toilet block, and an administration block at Monte Christo School in the Havana informal settlement for N$14,6 million.

Currently, Monte Christo School uses containers and tents as classrooms.

The details of the offer are contained in a letter written by Windhoek Gymnasium Private School managing director Colette Rieckert to education permanent secretary Sanet Steenkamp on 18 April 2018.

"Our problem at the moment is if we do not have access to the land - both erf 350 in Kleine Kuppe and Monte Christo School by May 2018 - we will not be able to complete the building of the facilities," Rieckert said.

She said building a new primary school near Windhoek Gymnasium would create 1 000 new places for pupils, but warned that failure to construct a new school would decrease their intake next year.

Rieckert implored the education ministry to urgently write to the City of Windhoek to state that the land can be sold to Windhoek Gymnasium.

"You have our minimum commitment of N$14,6 million, which is a lot for the ministry to gain (effectively as a donation). When we have more time, we can plan how to build the rest of the needed facilities, and for that, I can give you my commitment," she stated.

People familiar with this matter said Steenkamp consulted minister Hanse-Himarwa on the proposal, and was told to turn it down.

Steenkamp confirmed yesterday that land wanted by Curros is reserved for building schools for the ministry.

"The ministry has reserved this land for the construction of future primary and secondary schools, which will serve the southern and eastern expansion of Windhoek and surrounding neighbourhoods," she said.

She added that they did not construct anything on the land because the ministry is focused on priority areas where there is high demand for schools.

The proposal from Curros Holdings, Steenkamp said, did not meet the ministry's expected needs regarding school infrastructural development.

She noted that the ministry received two offers from property developers in the past before the proposal from Curros Holdings, and all offers were rejected for the same reasons.

This is, however, contrary to documents seen by The Namibian, showing that Steenkamp had described the proposal by Curros as noble with good intentions just a few months ago.

"The ministry values your willingness to come on board to assist in bridging the nagging inaccuracies of education of Namibian learners within the Khomas region, and genuinely salute you," Steenkamp wrote to Curros two months ago.

She has suddenly changed her tone, at the same time that her boss Hanse-Himarwa is said to have fallen out of favour with Geingob.

Hanse-Himarwa was unreachable for comment.

POWERFUL SUPPORT

This is not the first time that Windhoek Gymnasium's plans to build a pre-primary and primary school have been delayed.

Curros Holdings found assistance from President Geingob when the City of Windhoek dragged their feet on the company's application for land to build a school.

The details of the Presidency's intervention are included in another letter written by Rieckert to Steenkamp on 11 April 2018.

"We have had many frustrations in the application process of land for our junior schools," Rieckert said, adding that in December 2017, first lady Monica Geingos requested to see her about their land applications.

"After my discussion with Geingos, she discussed it with her husband, who immediately took action and sent a letter of support for our school, plus the request that the City of Windhoek starts actively to help me in my search for land," Rieckert said.

She added: "After issuing this letter, we did feel some action being taken (by the municipality)".

"Our President and his wife appreciate the quality education that we provide in Namibia, and wish for us to build more schools in our country," she said.

According to her, unfortunately, they could not get the plot they wanted because it is situated in an underground water area, while other available plots were given to private developers.

That is why they decided to ask the education ministry for the land near Windhoek Gymnasium.

The Presidency did not respond to questions sent to them yesterday.

MIXED SIGNALS

There are several explanations on what is happening in this transaction, besides the fact that it is a clear sign that the education ministry and the Presidency differ on this matter.

People briefed about this issue said a relative of a senior official in the Presidency is part of the company subcontracted to build the proposed Windhoek Gymnasium Primary School.

However, other people said officials in the education ministry are using that link as a way to dismiss a legitimate proposal to build a school on land that the ministry is not utilising.

There is speculation that the education ministry wants to give the land to another company.

In fact, a company called South Haven Holdings asked valuators to determine the value of the land.

South Haven Holdings made this enquiry a day after the education ministry rejected the application by Curros to build a primary school.

Steenkamp said they are yet to respond to South Haven Holdings, whose director Nick Mwanandimayi confirmed to The Namibian yesterday that they want the land to construct a conference centre.

Mwanandimayi said they also want to donate a school to the government.

"We are waiting for correspondence from the ministry of education," he added.

Rieckert told The Namibian yesterday that the benefits are not only about making space for primary schools, but the project will inject money into the economy.

"[The] N$200 million (the budget for the extension) will flow into the Namibian economy, creating job opportunities for many Namibians," she said.

She added: "If we do not obtain land in Kleine Kuppe, we will not be able to increase our learner numbers, and give more learners the privilege of attending Windhoek Gymnasium, with all it has to offer to a child".

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