Government to get majority stake in SunSpace satellite company


Cabinet today approved of the government’s move to acquire a majority stake in SunSpace, a private company set up as a spin-off of South Africa’s satellite development research programme.

Cabinet spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, said that funding to keep SunSpace intact will be made available through the usual budget processes of government. The Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, is expected to outline the details soon.

The timeframe, budget and exact percentage of the government’s stake have not been specified but the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is trying to finalise these details “as soon as possible”, according to Lunga Ngqengelele, spokesperson for the DST. However, Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Science and Technology, said that last year the value of a 55-60% stake in SunSpace was around R100 million.

Sun Space & Information Systems (SunSpace), is a specialist microsatellite company based in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape.

In February last year the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS) announced that the Cabinet had decided to acquire a majority stake “in order to retain South Africa’s national space capabilities”. The acquisition was originally planned for the middle of last year.

SunSpace initiated discussions on selling a stake to the government three years ago. “We did so because the satellite business is geopolitically sensitive,” SunSpace CEO Bart Cilliers told Engineering News last year. “Most clients are governments and they want to know that the manufacturer has the support of its home government. This deal shows solid government support and assures the stability and longevity of the company.”

The idea is that the government will only take part of the company so it becomes a partnership between the public and private sectors. “This is a good mix,” Cilliers said. “It combines government support with private initiative.”

Lunga says the government’s stake will ensure that SunSpace’s skills will not be lost. “As a department, it is important for us to keep those skills going,” he said.

SunSpace has undertaken a number of space programmes, including the design, development and manufacturing of the R26 million SumbandilaSat that was launched into space in September 2009. The University of Stellenbosch, SunSpace and the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) were key players in constructing SumbandilaSat, which was commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology.

SumbandinlaSat formed part of an integrated national space programme developed by the government to provide the country with affordable access to space technology and data. In March 2009 the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published its National Space Policy as a further step towards regaining the ability to launch satellites from SA into space. In December last year Pandor officially launched the South African National Space Agency (SANSA).

Established through the National Space Agency Act of 2009, the agency is to coordinate and integrate national space science and technology programmes and “conduct long term planning for the implementation of space related activities in South Africa for the benefit all citizens.” Its mandate is to promote the peaceful use of space, foster research in space science and communications navigation, and promote international co-operation in space-related activities.

Lunga says that the main goals of South Africa’s space programme are to capture a portion of the global small to medium satellite market; promote innovation and be independent of other countries when it comes to launching satellites. “We want to continue to consolidate our gains through SumbandilaSat and other satellites,” he said.