Defence force to take over Mthatha airport

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The South African Defence Force is preparing to take over the running of the under-utilised Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape.

Speaking to reporters prior to her budget vote in Parliament on Thursday, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said that the Defence Force would take over the running of the civilian airport for the next three financial years. “Depending on how the Defence force feels about it, we might extend it further,” Sisulu added.

The decision was taken by Cabinet Wednesday after being approached by the Eastern Cape government. Sisulu explained that the province had begun the refurbishment of the Mthatha (formerly Umtata) airport in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but that they only realised afterwards that it did not have the capacity or the funding to continue with it.

As the province found itself unable to continue with the operations of the airport, they approached central government to see if they were willing to take over and run the airport on their behalf. The refurbishment of the airport would also have to be completed. The defence force previously operated an air wing at the airport and thus owns a portion of the airport. [That of the former Transkei Defence Force before 1994 and for a short time thereafter.]

Sisulu said that Cabinet found the airport to be a very good investment as it would open up the Eastern Cape for additional investment and create jobs. “The Defence Force is not too enthusiastic about this,” Sisulu confided, “but we had to persuade them that the long-term effects of doing this are absolutely essential.”

The Department of Defence is looking at reviving the air wing at Mthatha airport in order to better serve the maritime security interests along the east coast. Sisulu also mentioned that a future use of the airport could be that of a pilot training school. As the decision had only just been made, discussions are to be held with the Chief of the SANDF as well as with the Air Force to plan the way forward.

The Department of Defence will team up with the Department of Public Works and the Department of Rural Development as the later will stand to benefit significantly from the additional investment in the area. As the airport is commercial in nature, the Department of Defence is hoping to partner with the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA). “We hope that that will be a cost-recovery measure for us because we do not have the necessary funding for that,” Sisulu explained.