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Chinese Risk All To Complete Airport On Time

Sino Hydro Corporation official Zheng Xiyu speaks with a broad smile that lights up his face as he discusses the huge project he is overseeing - Botswana's first world class international airport.

Indeed, the look on the face of the site manager at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport expansion project betrays his difficult experiences in Gaborone over the last few months.

Zheng went through hell not long ago at the hands of immigration officials because he did not possess the requisite work permit. He has actually been to prison for one day and one night. His construction site has been frequently visited by the Immigration Department as they sniff around for illegal Chinese workers at the over P400 million project in the nation's capital city. The immigration officials' visit often results in workers downing tools, as the host country wants to ensure that there are no illegal immigrants at the site which has employed up to 300 people.

Despite its size, the airport project has been given just 23 months to complete in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa to enable Botswana to host international flights, and to lure national teams with a huge following to set up base in Botswana.

The first phase of the project is expected to be complete in November, while the second phase will be completed in May 2010, according to the site manager. However, any reputed Chinese hard worker would admit 23 months for the project completion is no joke. As the commercial manager at the site Yang Cheng Fei tells the Monitor, "23 months is a very short time, but we are capable of fulfilling the promise we made," he says with a smile and the humility of a typical Chinese.

Before it took off in May last year, the airport project ran the risk of starting operation late, as the Immigration Department took more than three months to process the site manager's, as well as other Chinese workers' papers.

It was a near false start until the Chinese workers rescued the situation by playing into the hands of the law, starting the project without the work permits. It was not until three months after Zheng had started the airport project that the immigration officials started sniffing around for illegal migrants, the operation that also nabbed Zheng, who doubles as production manager and site manager.

Chinese ambassador to Botswana Ding Xiaowen says he is happy that the project promises to be completed on schedule. "They need to complete on time, but if you delay or refuse issuing work permits, the project won't finish on time. It is understandable that government should encourage companies to employ local people, and to encourage foreign companies to sub-contract their projects - projects mean new opportunities to the local people, and I have been encouraging Chinese companies to hire more locals, but sometimes they cannot find the skills they are looking for. The airport project is a good example."

The ambassador says it took more than seven months to get all the necessary papers for the Chinese workers on the project. He had to intervene at the last minute to rescue the site manager, who was sent to prison.

That raid happened at the same time with other raids that were targeted at Chinese run projects, such as the Serowe primary schools, the Oriental Plaza, and Dikgathong dam where a sizeable number of Chinese workers were jailed for lack of work permits.

Asked about his prison ordeal, Zheng, gave his trademark broad smile, before saying: " It was hard to get permits, and we needed to mobilise staff. We know this is a very big and important project that has to be completed on schedule, for the World Cup 2010. After I was released from prison after one day and one night, I had to come straight here and push the project, because I understand what it means to the government of this country," the manager told the Monitor.

A visit to the construction site on Saturday gives the impression that things have taken off smoothly. The steel structures for the new terminals are up; a huge crane lifting construction material 90m high is visible, as employees work busily atop the towering structures. Everything is running full throttle and Zheng tells the Monitor team the project (Phase I) will be complete by November this year, exactly a month ahead of schedule. His team is literally working day and night to be able to beat the tight deadline they have set themselves.

Sino Hydro is hailed in China for projects of this magnitude, after it designed, and built China's biggest international airport in Beijing. The Beijing airport, according to Chinese ambassador Ding, is one of the few highly sophisticated international airports in the world, with tight security, and the latest technology. "The same company that designed the Beijing airport has designed a wonderful project for the image of Botswana, you should see its design." ambassador Ding added.

The commercial manager Yang tells the Monitor that more than half of the project's total value of P430 million is remaining in Botswana and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

Contrary to assumptions that the Chinese company might be pocketing huge amounts and leaving little in the country, the commercial manager says they have procured material in Botswana and in the region worth P200 million, which is half the total project value.

Yang says the P200 million that remains here does not include millions paid to sub-contractors and other expenses paid out as wages.

He told the Monitor that that they have been sourcing material such as bricks, from Pan Africa, sand from HuaTswana, concrete from Kgale Quarries, cement from PPCB, concrete pipes from Kwena Rocla, steel structures from Steel Base, PVC pipes from Pipex, Steel bars from Steel Base, JCB from BH, amongst others. He revealed that they sourced steel bars and steel structures from a local company for P15 million. "Some of the material have not arrived yet but they all add up to P200 million," he added.

Perhaps, one interesting aspect of this airport project is that it is being managed by a relatively young team. The commercial manager and the production manager are both in their mid 20s. They have already undertaken six other big projects between themselves in China, and some parts of Africa.

(Monitor, 26 Jan 2009)

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