Build it, and they’ll come

Minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin’s recent statement that Canadian aluminum producer Alcan will shortly announce its decision on whether it will build a R2,2-billion aluminum smelter in the Coega Industrial Development Zone (IDZ) in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, failed to inspire confidence.

The smelter is one of three pillars of the project. The others are a deep-water port and the 12 000ha of land that is virgin territory for a range of industrial development projects.

Smelter construction has been delayed because Pechiney, the original builders, was taken over by Alcan.

Speaking from Montreal, Canada this week, Alcan spokesperson John Singerman was defensive in his insistence that “discussions are continuing and we are reviewing our options”. He noted that Coega had been added to a list of Pechiney’s and Alcan’s planned projects that had to be reviewed globally. He was unconvincing in his assertion that a decision could be expected after May 6.

At the IDZ itself, hope springs eternal. This week Vuyelwa Vika, communications manager for the Coega Development Corporation, told me that the idea of a smelter as an anchor tenant has been abandoned. (Have you ever seen a shopping centre without an anchor tenant?) Now the search was for a “basket of investments” in the metals, automotive, manufacturing and IT sector.

At a media update earlier this year, assembled hacks were told investments to the tune of R8-billion had been lined up. Vika would not estimate the total required investment.

On two helicopter fly-overs a year apart I saw the groundwork done to prepare the area. It is a massive initiative. The deep-water port is planned to start operation in September next year. To link to the country’s interior, Spoornet has committed R500-million for upgrading the line from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, Vika says.

Donald Kau, spokesperson for the National Ports Authority, says the “port is being built against the backdrop of increasing shipping volume traffic” and alongside upgrades at Richards Bay and Durban. He says that “our ports do not compete” noting how each port has a speciality and that Coega, apart from being South Africa’s only deep-water ports, will be the “dirty” port of the Eastern Cape.

This means it will take over the Port Elizabeth’s oil-tank farms and manganese scrap, while PE stays “clean”, with a food and container terminal and a waterfront development. The persistent argument has been that Coega is too far from major markets and that the solution lies in expanding the port of Durban. However, Raymond Hartle, a senior manager at Coega, once told me that in world terms the distance from Durban to PE does not matter much, and cited research showing South African port capacity would run out in 2007.

Coega has what it claims is the best mass-housing project in the country. However, its 2 500-resident capacity is vastly underused. Is this a microcosm of the whole ill-starred venture?

My sense is that Coega is built with the gritty determination and the rationale used by Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond in Field of Dreams: if you build it, they’ll come. It may work for Hollywood — but can it work in the hard-eyed world of international business?

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Sadtu calls for the closure of schools

Citing cases such as a school to which only four learners returned, to be met by 20 teachers, the union said Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on learning

SAA creditors give go-ahead on rescue plan

Unions and staff representatives have agreed to severance packages for about 2 700 employees who will lose their jobs.

Basic income grant on the cards as Covid-19 threat intensifies

The pandemic has triggered a global economic crisis that will leave many South Africans without income security

Reinstated Ingonyama Trust managers hit with retrenchment notices

The effect of Covid-19 and the land reform department’s freeze of R23-million because the ITB didn’t comply with budget submissions are cited as some of the reasons for the staff cuts

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday