Handbag huff costs taxpayers

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The refusal of a minister to have her handbag scanned at an airport in Oslo, Norway, cost South African taxpayers more than R235 000, according to a report in today’s Mail & Guardian. International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was on a state visit this month when she refused to pass her handbag through an x-ray scanner.

As a result she missed her scheduled commercial flight to her next diplomatic engagement in Bulgaria. A private charter executive jet was hired to transport her. It cost taxpayers a total of R235 343, according to her department.

It was unclear what the minister was carrying in her handbag and why she was keen to avoid security screening, said the newspaper. In its response the department said that the Vienna Convention exempted diplomats from luggage searches at airports, and that the minister – as the country’s top diplomat – was right to stand her ground.
“There was nothing in her handbag which could not be disclosed. This matter was not about the contents of the luggage. It’s a matter of principle,” spokesperson Clayson Monyela said.

But the official opposition Democratic Alliance party disagreed. Spokeswoman Lindiwe Mazibuko said in a statement the assertion “is false. The Vienna Convention does not exempt the luggage of diplomatic officials from pre-flight x-ray scanning. Article 36 merely prohibits the routine inspection (i.e. searching) of diplomats’ luggage unless it is suspected to contain items ‘prohibited by the law or controlled by the quarantine regulations of the receiving State’.”



Mazibuko says the Convention says nothing about scanning the luggage in an x-ray machine. “In fact, according to according to the provisions of Annex 17 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation on Aviation Security (Doc. 8973), diplomats and their personal baggage must always be subject to routine pre-boarding screening as it applies to civil aviation security.
“In other words, the Vienna Convention is a convenient red herring cited by ministry spokespeople in an attempt to save the minister from embarrassment. The rules state clearly that she should have allowed her handbag to be scanned by airport security officials. This raises the key question: why did the Minister refuse to put her handbag through the scanner as required by the International Civil Aviation Organisation? Was she trying to hide something?
“According to reports, she didn’t just refuse. She kicked up a fuss that was clearly audible to other passengers boarding the flight. And, when that didn’t work, she relinquished her first class ticket to Sofia and chartered a private jet at a cost of a quarter of a million Rand. One is left wondering why a Minister would go to such great lengths to prevent her handbag from going through an airport x-ray scanner if she had nothing to hide.
“We may never know what was in the Minister’s handbag. But we can recoup the public money that was spent on the private jet. I re-iterate my call for Minister Nkoana-Mashabane to pay back the money from her own purse,” Mazibuko said.
“Yet again, ordinary South Africans have had to foot the bill for the vanity and excesses of those who are meant to be public servants. … It is time for members of our government to understand that they are not more important than the citizens they serve. Over the last two years President Zuma’s cabinet has spent over R3.8 billion financing the lavish lifestyles and stroking the egos of its members, with self-congratulatory advertising, property renovations, luxury vehicles and VIP tickets to sporting events.”