The Department of Defence has issued a tender for two new VIP aircraft for President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, following a problematic procurement process.
The Sunday Times reports Ministry of Defence spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya saying that his department has not yet decided whether it will lease or buy the aircraft. The Sunday Tribune says the ministry of defence turned to the Treasury to help find R1.6 billion for the new aircraft.
“We are going to buy a plane for the president….The new, bigger plane is going to be responsible for longer international trips such as [to] Europe and America. The current one [a Boeing Business Jet] will be used mainly for domestic regional trips so that when the one is resting, we make use of the other one because right now if the [BBJ] breaks down, we have to go out and rent a plane,” he said.
In April it was announced that the South African Air Force (SAAF) would lease two Embraer Lineage 1000 VIP jets for five years from AdoAir, at a cost of US$120 million (R800 million). Then later in April it was announced that the lease plan was scrapped and the Air Force would instead on July 1 take delivery of a second Boeing Business Jet and a Bombardier Global Express XRS from ExecuJet.
That date came and went with no aircraft delivered. Then, on July 14 a request for quotation for a VIP transport lease was sent out to ExecuJet, SRS Aviation, Fortune Air, Interjet and AdoAir, with a return date of July 25. However, this was cancelled on August 5.
Mabaya said that his department was fighting in court to get out of the cancelled agreement with AdoAir
The rocky road to procuring new VIP aircraft has led to the resignation of defence secretary Mpumi Mpofu and the chief of the South African Air Force, Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano.
The ministry of defence last week said Mpofu tendered her resignation two weeks prior and left immediately. Mabaya said the department of defence’s chief financial officer, Mziwonke Dlabantu, is acting in her place.
Gagiano, appointed as Chief of the Air Force on March 1, 2005, handed in his resignation the same time as Mpofu, and soon after Motlanthe failed to travel to Finland as a result of mechanical problems on his chartered aircraft.
“They have handed their resignation letters,” defence department spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said of Mpofu and Gagiano. “I am not privy to the contents of those letters. I know the minister [Lindiwe Sisulu] is considering Gagiano’s resignation letter.”
Dlamini told Agence France Presse that the resignations were “somehow related to the problems that we’ve faced in the air force in regard to VIP flights.”
Following adverse media reporting, Gagiano in April said that it took “a lot of tender loving care” to maintain the current VIP transport fleet operated by 21 Squadron and that most aircraft were more than 30 years old. Finding new aircraft for VIPs, he said, had become “a necessity”.
“We only have two aircraft in our fleet that are younger than 20 years old. That is the president’s aircraft at the moment and the [Pilatus] PC12 single turboprop aircraft,” he explained at a briefing on April 13. Sisulu added at the same briefing, “Quite clearly we reached a point where it became not economically viable to continue with the ongoing expensive lease operations that would ensure an increase in those costs without sustaining what is really a viable service that needs to be provided.”
The Mail & Guardian in April reported that Sisulu in a confidential memorandum argued for two Boeing 767 VIP transports for the dedicated use of President Jacob Zuma, two Boeing 737s for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and two smaller Challenger or Bombardier Global Express XRS jets for “former presidents and ministers”.
“One aircraft for intercontinental presidential travel is woefully inadequate,” Sisulu argues in the memo. “In the event that the BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] is unserviceable or in servicing, there is not another kind of aircraft that is able to fulfil presidential air transport requirements.”
Motlanthe is currently flown in a Dassault Falcon 900, which also provides back-up services to Zuma. This 20-year-old aircraft can fly only 2500 nautical miles before refuelling, less than half the distance to London, the memo points out. Attached to the memo was a letter from aviation services firm Execujet, which acts as an aircraft broker, arguing that it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft than to continue operating those more than 10 years old.
Mpofu said at the April 13 briefing that VIP flights were a “very important element” of the country’s foreign policy and defence diplomacy “that saves the country money.” Gagiano added the politicians and diplomats that used the flights were the “frontline of defence” because “wherever we go, our politicians go first to engage”.
At the time Mpofu said the price of the lease had to be offset against the ever-increasing cost of maintaining the ever-more-elderly VIP-transport fleet as well as the cost of leasing when the BBJ, Falcon 900, two Falcon 50s and assorted smaller aircraft were either unavailable or unsuitable. She described the costs as increasingly “untenable”.
Gagiano noted that one recent flight to South America on a Reserve Force air commando aircraft required six refuelling stops. He added that VIP flights were normally at night. “Over Africa you have very violent weather and the infrastructure is bad. Landing in Africa at night is looking for trouble” in addition to being time-consuming and tiring. Gagiano said VIP flights should have a minimum of stops, be as quick as possible and as safe as possible.
A night refuelling landing involving a leased Douglas DC9 nearly ended in disaster on the night of August 31, 2009. The aircraft, carrying deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, then-deputy international relations and cooperation minister Sue van der Merwe as well as deputy defence minister Thabang Makwetla had been scheduled to land at refuel in Bangui in the Central African Republic but could not land due to cloud cover and deficient night or bad weather landing aids. It then diverted to Gbadolite in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and circled the dark airport while using its wing lights to find a runway. On landing, one of the rear wheels burst.
The disused airport, built by one-time Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko as part of his now-ruined jungle palace, is guarded by DRC troops and UN peacekeepers. After landing, they surrounded the plane. Assistance was rendered once the aircraft’s bona fides had been established, a report at the time added.
The Air Force’s VIP fleet has experienced other incidents. Last month an aircraft chartered by the Air Force developed technical problems whilst taking off from Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, causing Mothlanthe to miss his official visit to Finland.
According to the Cape Times, the resignation letters of both Gagiano and Mpofu were handed in days after the Waterkloof incident and precipitated by Sisulu’s disappointment that the Air Force had to hire aircraft to transport the president and vice president when cabinet had approved the procurement of new VIP aircraft earlier this year.
It has also emerged that Zuma was two months ago flown to the United Nations in New York by two mercenaries convicted for attempting to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. The Pretoria News believes that one of the mercenaries was Neil Steyl.
“When Sisulu became aware of the allegations she instructed Gagiano to immediately investigate it as a matter of urgency. At this stage we cannot confirm or deny it because it is still under investigation,” Mabaya said.
Mabaya said that non-SAAF pilots were probably hired because the Air Force did not have pilots certified on the aircraft that flew Zuma to New York. “It is for this precise reason that we believe it is in the defence force’s best interest to have planes which the SAAF has pilots to fly,” Mabaya said.
Mabaya said that an investigation would be launched into why Zuma and Motlanthe were piloted by non-SAAF pilots on international trips on chartered flights. “We have issued an instruction that only pilots employed full time by the air force should fly the commander-in-chief,” he said.
The Democratic Alliance’s MP David Maynier said that the resignations of Mpofu and Gagiano, “create a serious leadership vacuum at a time when the defence force has begun a defence review to reset its mandate capabilities and funding….The fact is that we cannot afford a wobble in its leadership in the midst of the defence review.”
He has repeatedly asked during parliamentary hearings whether there was any project to acquire new VIP aircraft and was repeatedly told ‘no’.
“The deputy president and ministers should only be using military aircraft in exceptional circumstances, where there are no commercial alternatives. That is not happening,” Maynier said.
He added that it was an “outrageous extravagance for President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to each have dedicated long-range business jets”.
“The fact is that it is simply wrong to spend R1.6 billion on business jets when millions of people in our country do not have housing, health or access to basic services.”
Pieter Groenewald, chief defence spokesman from the Freedom Front Plus described the sudden resignations of Gagiano and Mpofu as ‘rash’. “It appears as if both are being held responsible for circumstances over which they had no control. It is clear that the Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, is holding Gagiano and Mpofu responsible for the embarrassment of the President and his Deputy with rented aircraft.”
“It is unfair to hold them responsible because in Lt-Gen. Gagiano’s case he has to manage an air force where the government does not even give sufficient funding for fuel in order for pilots to be able to fly the required minimum number of flight hours. The impossible is expected of him. In Mpofu’s case it appears that she actually wanted to ensure that the correct acquisition procedures were followed with the purchasing of new aircraft. She impressed as the new Secretary of Defence and it is reflected in the Auditor General’s report. Both these individuals are assets to the Defence Force and should be kept,” Groenewald said.
Gagiano has been admitted to a military hospital where he is being treated for work-related stress. The Sunday Tribune reports that he is recovering in 1 Military Hospital from a burst ulcer.