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Payment dispute setback for Antarctic base

Publish date: 13 May 2019
Issue Number: 823
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
Category: A Matter of Justice

A payment dispute over critical equipment upgrades at SA’s Antarctic base has prompted warnings about the safety of scientists living there, according to a Sunday Times report. The Public Works Department owes nearly R36m to the contractor employed to refurbish the remote base. As a result, the contractor has begun legal action before handing over manuals needed to ensure the upkeep of state-of-the-art equipment. Although the SA National Antarctic Expedition is considered one of the most sophisticated on the ice continent, Cape Town refurbishment contractor Nolitha questioned the government’s commitment to the scientists, saying its invoices had not been paid since November, despite the company obtaining a job completion certificate. The refurbishment project began in 2015 and has so far cost more than R200m. Stakeholders with inside knowledge said a falling-out between Public Works, which is in charge of maintaining government infrastructure, and its main Antarctic contractor did not augur well for the management of the base. Correspondence between the company and government stakeholders suggests disagreement over the terms of payment. Internal e-mails suggest Public Works did not obtain the necessary budget from the Treasury to fund the last stage of refurbishment, which was unexpectedly costly, says the report. Last month, Nolitha detailed its frustrations in a letter to Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi. ‘The risk of severe reputational damage to our government caused by this lapse of administration … is significant,’ said company lawyer Abraham Dawson. In addition to its legal obligations, he said, Public Works had a moral responsibility to resolve the payment dispute in the interests of avoiding unnecessary job losses. Dawson said the dispute had turned an empowerment success story – Nolitha is 100% black-owned – into another instance of bureaucratic failure.

Full Sunday Times report (subscription needed)