Botswana Railways (BR) has distanced itself from the failed construction of a P100 billion joint venture Trans Kalahari Railway project with the Namibian counterpart state -owned TransNamib.
Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and State Enterprises (PCSB&SE) on Tuesday expressed concern over the delayed implementation of the railway project by BR, therefore demanding answers. The multi-billion railway line envisaged to connect Botswana and Namibia through the western coast town of Walvis Bay, is still struggling to commence after five years of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two governments.
Appearing before the PCSB&SE this week, BR CEO Leonard Makwinja found himself under baptism of fire from the committee over the status of the project. Makwinja told the committee that he is not the right person to be probed over the Trans Kalahari Railway project.
Ironically, Botswana Railways signed the memorandum of understanding with the TransNamib for the development of the 1, 500 Km railway line that has been anticipated to start connecting at the Mmamabula coal fields. Specially-Elected MP Mephato Reatile put Makwinja in a tight corner to account for what could be the delay in constructing the railway despite BR agreeing to implement it. The BR CEO attributed all the blame for the delay to the parent Ministry of Transport and Communications. He accused the ministry of sidelining BR on the project, without any consultation taking place.
“Yes I can confess that BR signed the memorandum of understanding with TransNamib to kick start the project but the Ministry of Transport is the most suitable body to give answers for this issue,” he said, sparking concern from MP Reatile on how the ministry could sideline BR on the project even though they possess the technical expertise to spearhead the project.
The only other time BR was engaged was when the CEO was when he was invited to a meeting between Botswana and Namibia transport ministers. “I think the project might bounce back. I can only speak about the BR railway projects that we own as this is more a transport ministry affair than us,” added Makwinja.
Pius Mokgware slammed government over making the project a secret only known by them.
He said the ministry of transport should appraise Parliament or even the nation at large on the delay. Efforts to reach comment from minister responsible for Transport and Communications, Dorcas Makgato were futile as her mobile phone was not available.
Mmamabula-Lephalale railway line
Probed further on other BR projects, Makhwinja revealed that the Mmamabula-Lephalale railway linking Botswana to South Africa is still alive. A 57 kilometre railway line expected to cost approximately USD200 million (P 2 billion), is set to start in 2021 expected to create over 3 000 jobs. The long-awaited railway line is expected to open up a higher capacity, heavy-duty coal export line to South Africa, an option that in previous years has stymied several projects on the eastern coalfields.
“Another mega project is constructing the 356 Km Mosetse-Kazunguala railways. I am fully aware of these two projects unlike others because they are on our hands. We do have regular seminars with Business Botswana and Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC), to see how we can court investors into these projects,” he indicated.
Mokgware remained optimistic that BR will execute the projects as it has planned for them compared to the waning multi-billion mega Trans Kalahari Railway. “We understand that a lot of influential people and companies are positioning themselves for this projects and only hope and trust that this will be done in the most transparent way. This is a project which should provide employment to Batswana by engaging local companies,” Mokgware emphasized.
BCL owes BR
Meanwhile, BR CEO when quizzed by committee member, Ndaba Gaolatlhe on how the closure of the BCL mine affected their operations, revealed that the mine owes them large sums of money which he could not divulge at the time. “Yes BCL mine was one of our most important customers. The closure of the mine has left us limping because the mine owes us a lot. I don’t have the correct figures now,” he added.
He revealed that the exiting BCL Liquidator has the figures of how much BCL owes them, as a result he got backlash from the committee for not knowing how much debt BR has from the mine. “It seems like this debt from BCL is somehow not affecting your company. How can you not know the figures of how much the mine owes you, I don’t see any seriousness in this matter at all,” Gilbert Mangole lashed out to Makwinja.
BR Express not profitable
According to Makwinja, since its reinstatement in 2016, the passenger train has turned out not be a lucrative business for the company despite BR being profitable. He noted that there is a fluctuating trend by passengers in using the train on annual basis, indicating that in 2017 147 000 passengers have been transported, increasing to 260 000 on 2018. Other segments such as Freight business, BR group properties mainly the shopping malls remain the largest profitable enterprises, according to BR CEO. He also added that BR continue to make profit, standing at P 48.6 million from 2018, with the parley committee remaining hopeful that BR develops other means of revenue generation to keep a positive record as far is profitability is concerned.