The proposed construction of a new airport in Durban, which has been on and off for the past 36 years, is likely to be further delayed following a decision by the Grinaker-LTA-led consortium, the Indiza Group, to challenge the awarding of the R5,8bn contract to a consortium led by its competitor, Group Five.

The Grinaker-LTA MD for the building division, Neil Cloete, said on Friday the construction firm had challenged the validity of the contract through the Pietermaritzburg High Court.

Cloete said the lucrative contract had been awarded to the Group Five-led consortium, Ilembe, without proper tender procedures having been followed.

The contract had been awarded to Ilembe “without a fair comparison of the tender price and key technical and commercial issues of Indiza’s proposal”.

He said Indiza’s proposal had never been evaluated and there had been no discussion between the consortium and the Dube Tradeport, a company established by the KwaZulu-Natal government to manage the industrial development zone where the new airport will be located.

“The grounds provided by Dube Tradeport for evaluating one proposal only are not justified for a project of this magnitude and importance, and are disputed,” said Cloete.

“All that Indiza wants is that its proposal be subjected to a fair evaluation against the other proposal in terms of the criteria laid out in Dube Tradeport’s request for proposal document.”

But the Dube Tradeport said recently that Indiza had been excluded from the discussions because its proposal did not comply with the tender process.

Dube Tradeport CEO Rohan Persad said: “We went through a thorough, rigorous process. In our book there is no excuse for the noncompliance. We are happy to have the matter assessed by a court.”

Airports Company SA (Acsa) said the new airport would replace Durban International Airport. It would be located at the La Mercy site, about 25km north of Durban.

Acsa MD Monhla Hlahla said recently that the airports operator had yet to decide what to do with the land at the existing Durban airport.

She said the company would look at various options, including long-term leasing . There was no plan to sell the land.

Hlahla said the planned move of the airport to La Mercy was a business decision and was not influenced by politics, as some people had suggested.

The new airport, although it is still in an embryonic stage, has a very long history.

The plan to build the airport has been mooted since 1971. The now defunct National Party first approved the plan to build the airport in 1973 at cost of

R70m-R100m.

In the mid-’70s the government said the airport would be ready by 1982, and then in 1988.

When the then transport minister, Hendrik Schoeman, was asked in Parliament about the status of the airport, he said: “Forget about La Mercy. Get it out of your head.”

The plan to build the new airport was then indefinitely shelved until 1994, when the African National Congress-led government decided to build the airport. Construction of the new facility was scheduled to begin in 2004, with the airport planned to be opened last year.

But a land dispute between the KwaZulu-Natal government and Acsa, which owned land at the La Mercy site, led to further delays.

Acsa said at the time low passenger traffic in Durban did not justify building a new airport, at least not until 2017 or 2020, when passenger numbers were projected to double to 5-million a year .

The provincial government then threatened to expropriate Acsa’s land and build the airport itself. After intervention from the national government in 2005, Acsa agreed to sell its 207000ha of land to the KwaZulu-Natal government and to manage the new airport.
Perhaps the cautiously optimistic statement made in 1981 by the then New Republic Party MP Brian Page still rings true about the future of La Mercy. Upon hearing that the new airport would be operational by 1988, Page said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

PUBLICATION: Business Day
AUTHOR: Khulu Phasiwe
DATED: 20th August 2007