The question of who – in government department terms – should pay for executive air transport has again surfaced with the revelation that President Cyril Ramaphosa flew to Japan in a chartered bizjet to attend the Rugby World Cup final in November.
The apparent non-availability of the Presidential 737-7ED Boeing Business Jet saw the country’s first citizen aboard a Bombardier Global Express operated by Fortune Air to attend the final and see the Springboks finish the tournament as Rugby World Cup winners beating England 32-12.
Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Kobus Marais will follow up an answer given to him by Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, in her capacity as chair of the Cabinet security cluster.
The Defence and Military Veterans minister told him she could not disclose the cost of the Tokyo charter due to “security concerns”.
“The DA will submit an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to force government to reveal how much was spent on chartering this flight,” he said, acknowledging it was important for the President to be present for the Springbok victory, but “there are questions to be answered”.
Marais said Mapisa-Nqakula’s response confirmed a chartered aircraft (ZS-KDR) was used and government does not want South Africans to know how much it cost.
“The flight to and from Japan cannot be said to have compromised the President’s personal safety and had no repercussions of any kind on state security.
“Government’s actions and the Ministerial response demonstrate a callous lack of fiscal responsibility and disregard for openness and transparency. This is unacceptable in the light of the national defence budget continuing to be cut year after year.
“The DA will bring a PAIA application to force government to disclose the information, which has no security implications and should not be confidential,” he said.
The Japanese excursion again brought to the fore an ongoing and simmering debate among South African military aviation specialists and enthusiasts: who should pay for the cost of VIP air transport, specifically for the President, his deputy and Cabinet ministers?
The SA Air Force (SAAF) has a dedicated VIP transport squadron – 21 – based an AFB Waterkloof. In its inventory are the Presidential Boeing 737 Inkwazi (ZS-RSA) and a pair of Falcon jets, among others. The airborne service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) operates and maintains these aircraft and also pays for charter costs when no aircraft are available.
A school of thought has it the air force should continue to operate and maintain the small VIP aircraft fleet with flight and other costs for the account of either The Presidency or the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO).
“These two departments contribute by far the largest number of passengers for 21 Squadron operations. With the current budget shortfall not expected to improve over the next four to five years if ever, it would be good to allow the SAAF to better spend its limited funds on other operational issues including maritime and border taskings.
“If flight costs are borne by these departments it becomes a ‘user pays’ situation, something government regularly points out must happen in other areas,” a retired air force pilot told defenceWeb.