The South African Police Service’s Air Wing has a fleet of 49 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, and of these 19 are currently flying, with the remaining 30 grounded or undergoing maintenance, according to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
Mthethwa was responding to a Parliamentary Question posed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party asking how many South African Police Service (SAPS) aircraft are in operating condition per air wing unit, how much flying time remains on each aircraft, when each aircraft was last serviced and how many aircraft are currently grounded.
In his response, Mthethwa noted that of the 30 aircraft grounded or undergoing maintenance, six were grounded before December 2012.
DA Shadow Minister of Police Dianne Kohler Barnard said that, “This is a crucial resource in tackling crime and the fact that the aircraft are grounded, through what can only be gross mismanagement, is a major crisis.”
Last month the Sunday Tribune stated that five of ten air wings around the country had stopped flying as their helicopters had not been serviced.
Kohler-Barnard said she would write to Annelize van Wyk, acting Chair of the Portfolio Committee on Police, to request that Mthethwa and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega explain why more than half the SAPS Air Wing “is sitting gathering dust, and what plan she has put in place to ensure that they are all operational.”
Kohler-Barnard pointed out that Mthethwa failed to say how much flying time each aircraft had done or when they had been last serviced. “This begs the question as to whether the Minister is deliberately trying to hide the dates of the last service and flying hours left for the aircraft.”
In mid-2012 it emerged that 18 SAPS helicopters, around half the total fleet of 37, were grounded for routine inspection and maintenance, due to maintenance tender problems, primarily with Armscor.
“It appears that the maintenance strategy for the SAPS Air Wing is still non-existent if fewer than half of the SAPS Air Wing is in the air,” Kohler-Barnard said. “The Minister and the National Police Commissioner must answer for this failure.”
The SAPS in a statement said that “some of the SAPS fleet is not necessary…hence the Minister recognises the need to [sic] frequent upgrades and maintenance. He stressed that during such upgrade processes, there needs to be a clear operational plan so that the fight against crime is not compromised.”
“We want to reiterate that whilst emphasis should be on cost effectiveness in the maintenance of these aircrafts [sic], we shall also not risk the lives of our pilots and passengers,” Mthethwa said. “To this end, we emphasize [a] safety first approach.”
The Minister added that “Our air wing fleet should not be viewed in isolation of our broader crime-fighting initiatives. We work as a collective. That is why from 1 April 2012 to 31 March 2013 a total number of 3 880 planned crime prevention and combating actions were conducted to enhance this integrated approach. During the same period police conducted nationally, 3 578 roadblocks, 68 633 vehicle patrols, 285 air patrols, 109 454 foot patrols, 910 borderline patrols, 2 620 vessel patrols.”
Mthethwa also revealed that 140 SAPS members were charged in disciplinary hearings as a result of the loss of firearms during the 2012/1013 financial year. “It needs to be noted that not all firearms were lost as a result of negligence and that in most instances, such losses occurred when police were responding to crime callouts or that they were attacked,” the SAPS said.
“Three years ago, SAPS introduced an Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) system aimed at ensuring greater accountability and responsibility over firearms in the hands of our police officers.”
“Whilst we welcome some of these interventions, we have now stressed to management to strengthen internal disciplinary and punishable measures against any police officer who loses his or her firearm as a result of negligence,” stated Mthethwa.