Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, head of the South African Air Force, has handed in his resignation, apparently over the issue of VIP aircraft for government officials. Yesterday it emerged that secretary for defence Mpumi Mpofu had also resigned.
The ministry of defence says Mpofu tendered her resignation two weeks ago and left immediately. Ministerial spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya said the department of defence’s chief financial officer, Mziwonke Dlabantu, is acting in her place.
Today it emerged that Gagiano also handed in his resignation letter around the same time. Gagiano was appointed as Chief of the Air Force on March 1, 2005.
“They have handed their resignation letters,” defence ministry 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.”
The SAAF and government officials have expressed a clear intention to acquire modern VIP jets to replace the ageing fleet. 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 $120 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 has come and gone 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, leaving a question mark hanging over the SAAF’s VIP aircraft plans.
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 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 19-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.
The Beeld reported today that Zuma was recently flown to the United Nations in New York by two mercenaries convicted for attempting to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. This apparently made Sisulu very angry, but Dlamini said he could not confirm such rumours.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance’s MP David Maynier said today that Sisulu must provide a full and comprehensive explanation for the resignations of Mpofu and Gagiano.
“The resignations create a serious leadership vacuum at a time when the defence force has begun a defence review to reset its mandate capabilities and funding,” Maynier said. “The minister cannot allow the speculation to continue and must provide a full and comprehensive explanation.”
Maynier said he would write to Jerome Maake, Chairperson of the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, to schedule a meeting with Sisulu, in order for her to explain the resignations and what is being done to resolve the chaos in the SAAF’s VIP squadron.
“The fact is that we cannot afford a wobble in its leadership in the midst of the defence review,” he said.