/ 31 May 2012

The Editorial: Greasing the Gautrain wheels

There have always been suspicions about the probity of the contracting process surrounding the Gautrain.
There have always been suspicions about the probity of the contracting process surrounding the Gautrain.

Its price ballooned from an estimated R7-billion to somewhere north of R25-billion in a few years and it ran into serious objections from ANC MPs in both Parliament’s portfolio committee on transport and the treasury, where Trevor Manuel was uncomfortable with its impact on other spending priorities.

Civil servants in the transport department were also unhappy that so little work had been done to integrate the project with the rest of Gauteng’s rickety public transport infrastructure. Yet Mbhazima Shilowa – at the time a powerful ANC baron – and the provincial government managed to push it through, citing the looming Fifa World Cup among their motivations.

Companies with prominent party-linked shareholders did well from the construction of the system and although the project remains incomplete and plagued by engineering problems, its airport and Rosebank-Midrand-Pretoria links are popular with commuters and frequent flyers.

Now the Mail & Guardian has uncovered the first concrete evidence of the kind of massive “commission” payments that have been used in other big government procurement projects, notably the arms deal, to conceal bribes.

This week we reveal that Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of trains, agreed to pay hundreds of millions of rands to Tunisian arms and infrastructure “fixer” Youssef Zarrouk for his help in securing the contract.

Bombardier is one of the lead partners in the Bombela consortium, which built and operates the Gautrain.

According to documents obtained by the M&G, court papers and people involved in the process, Zarrouk and his associates were supposed to pass on some of the R300-million to R400-million success-fee offer by Bombardier to the influential businessman and former Robben Island prisoner, Peter-Paul Ngwenya, in return for his help in lobbying on behalf of the company. Ngwenya says he received only $450 000 (R3.4-million) of the $7-million (R60-million) he had been promised.

These are staggering sums and although there is no evidence that money was passed on to those involved in deciding the bid, the fact that the underlying agreements are so similar to those of the arms deal, and that the money was clearly meant to pay for political influence, suggests serious wrongdoing.

Gautrain boss Jack van der Merwe says he was unaware of the deal with Zarrouk and will take it up with Bombardier. Both he and the Bombela consortium are going to have to do a lot more than that to allay our fears. We need the books opened for complete accounting of the flow of money to Zarrouk and his associates, as well as any onward payments they may have made to people or corporate structures with the potential to influence the bid. Bombardier will also have to explain why, if its hands are clean, a shady Tunisian deal broker was worth so much to the multibillion-rand deal.

In the absence of such transparency, the Gautrain threatens to become the next arms deal scandal.