Troubled satellite-maker may still find space

There have been rumors that SunSpace would be absorbed into Denel Dynamic. (Gallo)

There have been rumors that SunSpace would be absorbed into Denel Dynamic. (Gallo)

SunSpace, started by a group of University of Stellenbosch students, has had a difficult and uncertain three years, filled with unfulfilled government promises and contracts that failed to materialise.

Space has been identified as one of the department of science and technology's five grand challenges – the others are the bioeconomy, energy, climate change and human and social dynamics. Satellite production has also been touted by both the departments of science and technology and trade and industry as a high-technology manufacturing niche that South Africa could exploit.

In 2010 and 2011 Cabinet approved, in principle, the purchase of a 55% to 60% equity stake in the company, which was responsible for South Africa's R25-million pathfinder satellite Sumbandila. But last year, Cabinet did an about-turn, saying that the government should not buy a stake in the insolvent company, but should rather try to absorb the skills. Initially, it was thought that SunSpace's new home would be the South African National Space Agency.

There have been rumours that it would be absorbed into Denel Dynamics. Officials have remained mum about the details. But last week at the science budget vote in Parliament, Democratic Alliance spokesperson on science and technology Junita Klopper-Lourens confirmed that Denel was a possible home for SunSpace when she insisted that Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom give details about the move.

Hanekom said: "SunSpace is a private company … and it developed very, very serious human capabilities, but, unfortunately, they did not get the international contracts we hoped they would."

"Not a good expenditure"
He said that buying an equity stake would "not be a good expenditure of taxpayers' money. We are rescuing it, but it is a question of how we rescue it."

He added that the company was developing a business rescue plan. The only thing that SunSpace managing director Bart Cilliers would confirm was that the plan would be completed by the end of the month. He said that he had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the department of science and technology and could not comment on the possible absorption into Denel Dynamics.

Last year, when asked about the government's decision not to buy into the company, Cilliers queried whether "the department [of science and technology] was simply walking away from the 23-month salary arrears incurred by the personnel and the guarantees provided by the shareholders in keeping the [human] capability intact while the government decision-making process was being executed".

When contacted for comment, Denel Dynamics said that it had been instructed not to talk to the press, and told the Mail & Guardian to speak to the department of science and technology.

The minister said that a number of possibilities were being explored. Initially it was expected that the space agency would absorb these skills. In October the agency said that it was exploring ways in which it could be integrated.

A valid assumption
This was a valid assumption because South Africa has started work on a new satellite that will join the African Resource Management Constellation. Four African countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya — have committed to contributing at least one satellite to the constellation, which will monitor Africa's resources, such as agriculture, water, climate and human settlements. This year, R272-million has been set aside for the construction of ZA-ARMC1, which will be South Africa's contribution.

However, even if SunSpace remained afloat as a private company in expectation of ZA-ARMC1 contracts, there is no guarantee that it would get them.

Last year, there was an outcry against the Square Kilometre Array South Africa project office, after a disgruntled businessperson said that it was reneging on its promises to boost local business and was giving contracts to foreign firms.

Heinrich Bauermeister's company, MMS Technology, which designed and made South Africa's prototype XDM and KAT-7 telescopes, had not been awarded the R632-million contract to build the antennas for the country's Square Kilometre Array precursor, the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope.

Square Kilometre Array South Africa said at the time that, because of treasury regulations as well as local content stipulations, it had to award the tender to the most competitive bidder, otherwise it would be an irresponsible use of taxpayers' money.

The antenna tender was awarded to a joint venture between South African Stratosat Datacom and United States company GD Satcom.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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