'Zuma jet' - opinion

Lost in the Bermuda Triangle of politics

Inkwazi taking SA into trouble
Inkwazi.jpg

A bad reputation, a bad communications strategy and bad timing formed a political ‘Bermuda Triangle’, in which, seemingly, R4 billion of South African taxpayers’ money disappeared.

Signs of the political storm brewing over the international travel arrangements for members of South Africa’s executive came in August this year during a visit to Japan by an SA trade delegation led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. It erupted into controversy when it became known that the Ramaphosa party travelled to Japan in a jet plane registered to Westdawn Investments, owned by the Gupta family.

The Gupta family became controversial because of their links to President Jacob Zuma, which saw them use the Waterkloof Airforce base to land a private plane with guests for a private wedding reception.

When controversy around the visit to Japan ensued in August this year, we wrote: “President Zuma has allowed himself to become involved in a wide number of controversies and it has become highly contagious. The Japan trip has now illustrated how it is threatening to contaminate even the man who might succeed him, Deputy President Ramaphosa – if not poisoning the total body politic of the country, undoing much of the good that is also happening.

“It has become an issue the ruling ANC should urgently address.”  

Crisis proportions

To what extent this contamination is starting to take on crisis proportions for government and state institutions, is illustrated by the reaction to an article some ten days ago in City Press about consideration being given to the procurement of a dedicated jet for international travels by members of the executive.

On 5 November Armscor, as the procurement agent for the South African Defence Force, placed a notice on the “tender notice board” of its website, saying: “Information is required for: Inter-Continental VIP Aircraft Closing date: 20 November 15 at 11h00. Enquiries …”

This follows a statement earlier this year in parliament by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula that the government’s growing interests internationally meant the air force’s existing VIP aircraft were not adequate to provide VIP transport.

It also follows on a history, dating back some years, of problems with the Air Force’s capacity to provide government with VIP transport.

For example, in 2009 an aircraft carrying then-Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had to make a forced landing at a remote airstrip in the Democratic Republic of Congo under far less than ideal security circumstances. The lease of a private aircraft for the Ramaphosa visit to Japan and the cost associated with it, is also a reflection of this problem.

So is the fact that the existing top model in the Air Force’s available VIP fleet the 15-passenger jet, known as the Inkwazi, has recently been grounded a number of times because of mechanical problems – the result being more costly leases of private planes.

Based on its own research, City Press calculated that the cost of an aircraft meeting the Armscor specification would be in the order of R9 billion. Both the headline of article and the reaction of commentators and opposition politicians suggested that such an aircraft would be for President Zuma’s exclusive use. And the cost of R9 billion became treated as an established fact.

Commentary and reaction also accepted as fact that the plane would be second in terms of both cost and luxury only to Air Force One, the plane used by the president of the United States.

What got lost in the uproar, was the comment in the City Press article by military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman, that, if acquired, such an aircraft could be an asset as a “multipurpose jet”.

“If it could also serve as an inflight refuelling aircraft for the fighter planes or, with minor adjustments, could for example be used as an ambulance aircraft during a disaster, it would make sense.

“It would also be logical if an entire presidential party could be transported in just one aircraft instead of three-quarters of them flying commercially, because then it would be used more cost-effectively,” he said.

Wider perspective

Our own research on the internet revealed that, in fact, a number of countries, some of them much smaller and with a much lower international profile than South Africa, have more expensive travel arrangements for their heads of state and members of the executive.

Calculated at the rand/dollar exchange rate at the time of writing, even the Kenyan president’s Fokker 70 cost R7,2 billion and was reconfigured into a 28-seater, with three suites, bathroom and kitchen. It is equipped with the latest telecommunication facilities.

The Brazilian Air Force’s Special Transport Group (GTE) has a fleet of no fewer than 22 aircraft for transporting the president, the vice-president and senior ministers of the Brazilian government. The top model used for the president, an Airbus A319 called the Santos-Dumont, was designed to serve as an airborne command post in the event of political instability or armed conflict and includes a number of military defence capabilities.

Pictures of this plane available on the internet show, among other things, a suite including a comfortable double bed.

Italy uses three Airbus Corporate Jets for the head of state and government officials costing R3.16 billion each.

Probably top of the range, after the USA’s Air Force One, is the plane available to Russia’s President Putin, reported to have been customised for some R26 billion in 2012, including a toilet costing R1.15 million.

What went wrong?

Judged against this background and to what extent government business has become internationalised under the modern phenomenon of globalisation, the reaction to what is at this stage only a probe into a possible provision for official travels of senior government official, seems disproportional.

According to our estimates there are a number of reasons that can be grouped together under three headlines:

  • Reputational: To what extent President Zuma’s reputation for controversy has developed into what can be described as a national liability, is well-illustrated by an article by Stephen Grootes last week on the Daily Maverick website. Grootes wrote: “… we all know that the imminent purchase of a new presidential jet, for around R4 billion is just a flying extension of the Presidential ego;”
  • Poor communication: From the reaction of opposition leaders to the reports surrounding the ‘Zuma jet’ it is clear that there is nothing left in South Africa of the parliamentary tradition in democracies around the world of keeping leaders of the opposition informed on a confidential basis on matters of national importance. And there was clearly no public communication campaign before the process was brought into the public domain; and
  • Bad timing: To spring the issue on the public and the media on the eve of an intense and crucial election time and in a “season of social discontent” on so many fronts, was extremely bad timing.

The way in which the matter played out in the media in general also has some important implications, but that is a topic for another time.

by Piet Coetzer

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