Dlamini defends Presidential charter flight

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The Department of Defence (DoD), in the form of its Head of Communication (HoC), came out with verbal guns blazing to defend a chartered aircraft taking President Cyril Ramaphosa and his entourage to a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week.

The charter of an SAA (South African Airways) Airbus A340 cost, according to weekend news reports, R2.6 million. This, HoC Siphiwe Dlamini maintains, was in fact the lowest quote received for the flight. Quotations were requested from, what he said in a statement, were “potential service providers”.

“The national carrier, SAA, was one of several bidders from who the SA Air Force (SAAF) sourced quotes. SAA filed the lowest quote at under R1.6 million – R1 million less than the R2.6 million ‘estimate’ the Sunday Times tried to pass off as fact. Two quotes for significantly smaller aircraft came close to R1.9 million each.

“In arriving at its estimate, the Sunday Times regrettably relied on hearsay from alleged sources in the aviation industry which the DoD believes the newspaper used to cover up unethical sourcing of information from unauthorised [Department of] Defence personnel. The Sunday Times was also wrong on the number of passengers on the flights to and from Kinshasa,” the statement has him saying.

There were 14 passengers aboard the French built, four-engined aircraft for the South Africa/DR Congo flight with 55 coming back, according to the statement.

The need for a charter was said by Dlamini to be because “Inkwazi”, the VVIP Boeing 737-7ED operated by 21 Squadron, along with other executive aircraft in the Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof squadron inventory, “are currently out of commission”.

He gives no reasons for Inkwazi’s grounding which weekend reports have it is due to non-payment of subscription fees for the Jeppesen flight database.

The SAAF finds itself in the proverbial financial pickle, unable to fly its frontline fighters or use a simulator to maintain pilot currency on the Gripen. The airborne component of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) battles to keep its fleet of workhorse Oryx medium transport helicopters airworthy and four Super Lynx maritime helicopters have been grounded for some time. As far as airlift is concerned, 28 Squadron can apparently offer two C-130BZs at any given time as the SAAF’s lone heavy transport unit.

Darren Olivier, African Defence Review director, confirmed that Inkwazi’s grounding is because the SAAF has not paid its monthly subscription fees to update the flight database. No aircraft flying internationally is allowed to fly without the latest flight data. Apart from the VIP fleet, this also affects the C-130BZ Hercules supply flights into the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

“Contract renewal decisions are a mess in the Air Force at the moment, both because of the tight budget and some questionable decisions by senior leadership,” Olivier maintains.

“It’s time for a complete top to bottom rethink of procurement in the SANDF and whether it truly makes sense to apply things like local content from Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act regulations to services only foreign OEMs can provide. It’s poor strategic thinking.

“If you’re mandating that a key capability be established and maintained locally for security of supply, that’s one thing. But SANDF procurement is ever increasingly just the use of local middlemen skimming off the top by reselling services and equipment provided by foreign suppliers,” Olivier stated.

Elaborating further on the Inkwazi’s grounding, Olivier explained that the non-renewal of flight databases was amongst contracts (including for fuel and spares) affected by National Treasury’s February order to stop advertising new tenders. Although this was lifted in May with additional requirements, “the DoD interpreted it as a ban. For some reason that process of getting Treasury’s exemption for SANDF tenders in certain areas has been going terribly.”

The Jeppesen database contract, Olivier continues, is maintained by the SAAF’s Directorate for Air Safety and renewed every 3 years. It expired on 31 March 2022 in the middle of the tender moratorium. Because of the exemption issues no new tender has been issued. An emergency procurement was denied.

“I’m as yet unsure as to exactly when the databases expired, which forced the SAAF to ground the aircraft. It’s possible there was a slightly longer grace period negotiated or similar. Either way, once the contract expired it was inevitable that this outcome would occur,” he stated.

Olivier does not blame the SAAF’s Directorate of Air Safety, or arguably even the Air Force, which did everything it could by the book. “The root cause of the issue is that the tender process is broken, the DoD is becoming ever less capable of managing an ever more convoluted process with requirements that don’t suit defence needs, and neither the Minister of Defence nor Secretary of Defence are effective.

“The moratorium and subsequent issues have seriously affected all SAAF procurement tenders including those for fuel, spare parts, and maintenance. It’s a slow-moving disaster without any real sense of urgency from the top,” Olivier concluded.