Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2003-01-10 Reporter: Sam Sole Editor:

SA Firm Made to Carry the Can for Corvette Delay


Publication  Mail and Guardian
Date 2003-01-10


Sam Sole

Web Link


Hundreds of disadvantaged students and local workers could be the ultimate victims of the row over faulty cables supplied for the navy's first new corvette as a South African company appears set to be made the scapegoat for the problem.

The Mail and Guardian has established that the local firm involved in the manufacture of the cables is a small South African business called Bartel Kabel Werke.

Bartel is an established firm owned by a series of trusts, including the Hugo Bartel Engineering Trust, which provides bursaries to disadvantaged engineering students.

Bartel CEO Eberhard Schmidt declined to comment and referred all queries to the German Frigate Consortium (GFC), the prime contractor for the corvette project. GFC spokesperson Sven Müller failed to return several calls by the M&G, as did chief project manager Thomas Stern.

However it is understood that Bartel was approached about five years ago by Siemens to become a subcontractor to Nexans, a multinational cable manufacturer with its headquarters in France. Siemens in Pinetown had previously used Bartel for marine work.

Bartel was contracted to apply the special insulation layer around the copper cable core supplied by Nexans' naval cable plant in Germany. This would allow the GFC to claim millions of rands in industrial participation or "offset" credits (similar to a local content requirement) demanded by its contract with Armscor.

Sources close to the process say the technology and the special plastic pellets used to make the insulation layer were supplied by Nexans and technical specialists from Germany carried out regular inspections of the local factory. Armscor also inspected and certified the factory.

However, serious problems have emerged with at least some of the batches of cable installed on the first corvette, the SAS Amatola, and it appears that Bartel would be the endpoint for a cascade of litigation likely to flow from delays in the handing over of the ship. As a small firm it would be hard-pressed to survive the costs of such a dispute.

Contractors who have been working with the cables on the ship said they doubted assurances this week by Müller (the GFC spokesman) that delays would be "minimal". They told the M&G of corroded cable and shorting out electrical connections.

Navy officials said they were expecting to receive a proper assessment of the scale of the problem only next week, at which point decisions about invoking penalties for the delay would be considered.

Meanwhile it has also been learned that both the Germans and the navy may have had prior warning of possible problems with the cable.

It is understood that long before the installation of the cable, a senior navy officer inspected the Bartel factory and wrote a report to the navy questioning the capacity of a small firm to provide quality assurance and also questioning whether the Nexans technical process was reproducible.

Another source has claimed that the particular Nexans process used by Bartel is new and relatively untested and that Nexans was made aware of problems being experienced by the South African factory.

Written questions to Nexans were unanswered at the time of going to press.

In the light of these allegations, queries will be raised about why the GFC proceeded with fitting the cables, only to discover problems once the fitting process was complete.

It is notable that the delay brought about by the cable debacle is extremely convenient for many other contractors for the combat systems of the ship, who are running between six and 12 months behind schedule, say well-informed sources.

With acknowledgements to Sam Sole and the Mail and Guardian.