SOUTH AFRICAN RAILWAYS AND HARBOURS: Engineer
Selati Branch Line
The building of the railway from Komatipoort to the Selati gold-fields in the early 1890s was the subject of a public scandal in the Zuid Afrikaansche (Transvaal) Republic. The concession granted for the project provoked malicious rumours, including charges of corruption as well as many other allegations, both proven and unproven! The vehemence of the opposition against the project is partly explained by the continued resistance, mainly by foreigners, to the concession granted the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij [NZASM] for the line to Lorenzo Marques. However, with the pre-Anglo Boer War build-up against the Kruger regime, the charges against the Selati Company of financial maladministration, gross negligence and deliberate efforts to harm the State - emanated from other than alien sources and even from persons sympathetic to the Government.
The concession originally, in 1890, was granted by the Volksraad to Barend J. Vorster, member for Zoutpansberg in the First Volksraad. The chairman of the Selati Company was another Volksraad member, Paul Marx. Charges of bribery by the Selati Company to members of the Volksraad were later denied by some Transvaal individuals although admitted by others.
The concession invested its holders with the exclusive right to build and operate for 20 years a steam railway from the main Pretoria - Delagoa Bay line to the gold-fields around Leydsdorp near the Selati River. The Government was implicated internationally in the financial arrangements, in that it guaranteed the payment of 4% interest on an authorised loan of £2m. Vorster made over his concession to Eugene Oppenheim, a suave Frenchman and brother of a baron who floated a company on specious grounds on 1892 09 06. On that same day he entered into a contract with Louis Warnant for the construction of 308 km of railway at the stipulated maximum cost. Three days later Warnant farmed out the contract to Westwood and Wimby, making a profit of £500 000 for the Oppenheims, whose agent he was. Seemingly, so as to comply with a condition of the concession that paid-up shares to the value of £500 000 he had to be sold by the company before debentures to a maximum of £1m could be offered, false entries were made in the company's books purporting to represent French Francs for fully paid-up shares. To account for this amount, another false entry showed that £1m francs had been paid out to Warnant for 'work in progress'. Slow progress with the construction work and grave financial difficulties, followed by a request to the Government for further extension of capital, led to an official commission of inquiry which proposed the cancellation of the concession and the taking over by the Government of the company's entire assets, in order to avoid further losses to the State.
When the company opposed this step, the Government refused to pay dividends on the company's share capital, though it continued payment of interest on the debentures, which involved foreign investors. Thereupon the Company in 1898 took recourse to legal proceedings in Brussels against the ZAR government. This action was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War and so never resolved. In court evidence of bribery was admitted by some witnesses and denied by others. In 1900 the Belgian court sentenced Eugene Oppenheim, his brother Robert, and their lawyer Henri Warnant to imprisonment and fines for falsification of the books; Louis Warnant was acquitted. After the War Milner continued to probe into the matter, and the late ZAR administration was publicly humiliated.
When the gold on the fields petered out, the line was abandoned. The earth-works had not progressed beyond 119 km, while the actual railway line was laid down over a much shorter distance. Work was resumed by the Transvaal government in 1909 and the line was completed in 1912, via Tzaneen to Soekmekaar (on the line from Pietersburg [Polokwane] to Rhodesia [Zimbabawe]).
In 1923 the South African Railways instituted a 'round-in-nine' rail trip of the Lowveld, including an overnight stop at Sabie Bridge (Skukuza). As there were no overnight facilities for the public, the tourists slept on the train. These visits to the Sabie Game Reserve - along the Selati railway line - proved so popular that rangers later accompanied the tourists on the train and even arranged short bush excursions.
In 1962, consequent to the expansion of mining activities at Phalaborwa as well as agricultural development, The South African Railways decided to increase the payload on the Selati line. To this end certain portions of the line within the Park had to be straightened and it was also decided to build a station at Huhla, the railway siding to the immediate north of Skukuza. Work on this project commenced in 1963. However the situation was reconsidered and it was decided to build a new line to the west the Kruger Park, effectively ending a railway presence in the park. The line has subsequently been lifted and only vestiges of the earthworks remain to remind the observant visitor of the trajectory a fraught project.
Other residue on this site are:
(Roger FISHER 2015) synthesised from the cited sources.
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