By Jabu Matsebula
THE skyline over the city of Mbabane is about to change, decidedly for the best. It will change the enduring picture of a city under threat from the hulk of a skeleton hovering over its western horizon that visitors carried away with them is about to disappear.
In the last few weeks, workmen began descending on Libandla Street, construction vehicles dropping off equipment and building materials. By mid-May, a crane started rising to the sky, and this week, the site is a hive of activity.
At the end of an estimated 24 months, a new shimmering 16,000 square metres 7-storey twin-towers with two levels of underground parking and an upmarket restaurant will be standing.
In a major relief from a 20-year nightmare that has kept many people awake at night, the new structure will subsume the recently derelict former SASCCO building tower that looms over the Mbabane New Mall.
The 7-storey building that started at the turn of the century is being upgraded with an additional 7-storey mirror structure on the south side that will double floor space, improve project viability and return on investment.
The structure was started as a major E40 million investment of credit cooperatives under the Swaziland Association of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SASCO). SASCCO is an apex body for the Savings and Credit Cooperatives of Eswatini and one of the oldest national financial institutions registered as a cooperative in 1988.
It was an ambitious project that went off the ground in 2002 during the same period as another structure, the Corporate Place down the slope across the Mbabane River at the Swazi Plaza. Both projects were born during a period that may be considered akin to the Biblical 7 Lean Years, an ill-fated period of incredible headwinds that blocked progress.
At the Corporate Place, the partners who had entered into an un-business-like 50-50 shareholding arrangement typically were unable to break the deadlock when they disagreed. They were in the advanced stages of developing a multi-level parking lot to cater to the needs of the shopping malls. The project also included a 6-storey banking tower.
Boardroom gridlock stalled the project that was stranded for several years as the partners engaged in a ruinous fallout over decision-making. Ultimately, defeated in court, one of the shareholders took his toys and left the country for some time.
Meanwhile, up on the slope, SASCCO had overestimated the depth of their pockets. After almost 10 years of building, their income streams faltered, forcing the cooperatives against the wall. When they could no longer pay their commitments to the office development, the project finally stopped and went into liquidation in 2013.
While the Corporate Place finally managed to resolve its problems and complete what has since become the centrepiece of the city’s commercial centre; the SASCCO project continued to gather dust and soot from the air and attract scorn and an undeserved ill reputation. It was accused of harbouring havens of crime, posing an environmental hazard and being an eyesore for the city a downright threat to innocent people on whom it was feared it would someday fall.
While some struggled to rescue the SASCCO project and revive it, others demanded its demolition. Among the surprising negative voices calling for demolition was none other than the legislature. MPs in the 10th Parliament went to the extent of a 2014 resolution for the Mbabane Municipality to pull the structure down.
“This structure cannot be considered dangerous or hazardous to anyone,” objected Mbabane Municipality spokesperson Gugulethu Hlophe. “It is structurally sound and will not collapse. Our engineers have assessed it and we are sure it is not defective in any way,” she told The Times of Swaziland.
Demolishing the structure, Hlophe told the newspaper would cost between E20 – 40 million. That cost would have been close to SASCCO’s investment cost estimated at E55 million in building material and contractor costs.
Among the defenders of the structure was Prime Minister Dr. Sibusiso Dlamini whose term mirrored the various phases of the building’s progress. The Prime Minister started a motion that has been carried forward by his successors to find ways of completing the development.
The SASCCO building may have died for a time, but it is certainly getting a dose of second life.
Working behind the scenes to inject the project with new life for the past 10 years, has been Maurice Du Pont. His company, Du-Van Developers were working on the project when their client ran out of funds, which forced the project to spiral downhill towards liquidation. As the major creditor on the project, Du Pont was able to secure a new future for the project.
I was the main contractor at the start of the project. We were engaged by Kwakitsi, a SASCO special project vehicle (SPV). As the main creditor, we held a lien on the project after Kwakitsi when it went into liquidation. Over the years Du-Van engaged with various financiers to secure funding and complete the building.
Earlier this year efforts struck gold when the Public Service Pensions Fund (PSPF) agreed to come on board. “Part of the deal was that we would sell the project to the funder which would allow the business to come out of liquidation; then sell it and get our money.
An even more important part of the deal makes it possible for SASCCO to also benefit from their effort. The new financiers will build Takitsi – SASSCO an E10m office structure on the north side of Lbandla (Church Street). Designs for that building are currently awaiting City Council approval.
Unlike Manzini where things simply work without apparent hassle, Mbabane often requires special intercessory prayers. Indeed, twice bitten, thrice shy. There might be many who may be forgiven for worrying if the tall building with be completed.
Perhaps they shouldn’t worry. This time, it’s the big guns with deep pockets that are carrying the SASCCO building. The main developer, Du-Van is responsible for the real estate south of Sozisa Road.
He built the government’s new ministerial complex, the PSPF offices and their three towers as well as the Hilton Gardens Hotel. The financier, PSPF has more money than the water passing through the Mbabane River bridge in summer.