Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano remains the head of the South African Air Force and is back at work this week, after defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu refused to accept his resignation letter.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya told defenceWeb today that Gagiano is out of hospital and due back at work this week. He was admitted to 1 Military Hospital last week with a burst ulcer.
Gagiano resigned two weeks ago along with Secretary for Defence Mpumi Mpofu over the problematic procurement of VIP aircraft. The ministry of defence last week said Mpofu left immediately after tendering her resignation. 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 soon after deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe failed to travel to Finland as a result of mechanical problems on his chartered aircraft.
Over the weekend it emerged that the Department of Defence has issued a tender for two new VIP aircraft for President Jacob Zuma and Motlanthe. The Sunday Times reports Mabaya as 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,” Mabaya 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 Air Force’s VIP fleet has experienced numerous 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. One of the pilots was Neil Steyl, who said that he would never fly the president again because “with all this nonsense doing the rounds it is just not worth it”.
“The only aircraft available for Zuma’s flight [to New York] was this specific [Fortune Air] Boeing 727 and because there are very few pilots in the country who can fly this aircraft, and with no one in the air force able to, I was hired,” Steyl said.
“All the necessary security checks were done on me and I was cleared to pilot the plane. I did what I was asked to do. Zuma was a very pleasant person and a good passenger. He didn’t complain about anything and I don’t even think he even cared about who was flying him.”
According to Mabaya, General Solly Shoke, head of the army, is heading up a commission to look into the matter. Mabaya said that when Sisulu became aware of the allegations regarding mercenaries flying Zuma to New York she instructed Gagiano to immediately investigate it as a matter of urgency.
Mabaya said that non-SAAF pilots were probably hired because the Air Force did not have pilots certified on the 727 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. “We have issued an instruction that only pilots employed full time by the air force should fly the commander-in-chief.”
“The deputy president and ministers should only be using military aircraft in exceptional circumstances, where there are no commercial alternatives. That is not happening,” The Democratic Alliance’s MP David 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 said that it appears as if Mpofu and Gagiano are both are being held responsible for circumstances over which they had no control. “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.”