Gravy plane: the plot thickens

Time of article published Jan 17, 2006

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By Jeremy Gordin and Angela Quintal

Taxpayers' money, in addition to bankrolling a holiday for Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, has also paid for a holiday for her friend, Thuthukile Mazibuko-Skweyiya. She's the wife of Zola Skweyiya, the minister of social welfare.

After two days of refusing to clarify this issue, the Presidency has finally agreed to issue a comprehensive "clarification statement" on Tuesday. This comes in the wake of repeated attempts to get comment on the issue from the Presidency, the ministry of social development and the government's communications service.

The news that Mazibuko-Skweyiya had accompanied Mlambo-Ngcuka, her husband Bulelani Ngcuka and two children on a controversial five-day holiday on a SA Air Force Falcon 900 passenger jet to the United Arab Emirates - which comes after two weeks of embarrassing and contradictory statements from the Presidency - has come at a time when President Mbeki has been calling on all ANC members to avoid "gravy train" antics at all costs.

Themba Godi, PAC MP and chairperson of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), parliament's watchdog on public finances, on Monday night confirmed receiving a request from the DA that Scopa investigate a possible breach of the Public Finance Management Act by the deputy president.

He said the request would be considered "very carefully" and rapidly by his committee.

After the various parties involved originally went to ground on Sunday night and on Monday, Morobe late on Monday afternoon promised all would be clearer on Tuesday either by way of a written statement or through a press conference.

He did not deny Independent Newspapers' information that Mazibuko-Skweyiya had accompanied the deputy president.

He said all the issues would be canvassed in Tuesday's statement, including that of the presence of Mazibuko-Skweyiya.

Mazibuko-Skweyiya has not replied to any of the messages left on her cellphone.

Morobe and Social Development Ministry spokesperson Lakela Kaunda confirmed, however, that Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya did not accompany the presidential party.

Skweyiya was acting president until December 27 when the party travelled to the UAE and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang took over for a day. Attempts to find out about Skweyiya's whereabouts from the 27th onwards have been unsuccessful.

It is understood that the Presidency hopes to try to salvage the public relations disaster and put the issue of the trip to rest by explaining, among other things, the "conventions and procedures" that govern work and private trips by Mbeki and Mlambo-Ngcuka.

In a bid to counter the expected fallout about the fact that Mazibuko-Skweyiya - a civilian and close friend of the Deputy President - was transported at taxpayers' expense, it is understood that the Presidency will try to justify her presence by saying that the so-called conventions and procedures are "silent" on who may accompany the president and deputy president on these trips.

The Presidency will apparently argue that there is a precedent for civilians to accompany the President and Deputy President at taxpayers' expense when official transport is used.

It is understood, for example, that when Zuma was deputy president, his friend and former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, had accompanied him on air force flights.

Meanwhile, Morobe confirmed that there was no cost to the SA taxpayer or government relating to accommodation and other costs of the holiday trip.

After a brief stay in a hotel, Mlambo-Ngcuka's party were the guests of the government of the UAE, he said.

The country's political leaders have reacted with censure, dismay and shock at the Presidency's refusal to clarify for close to 48 hours the most recent allegations regarding the trip.

Godi, who is also PAC deputy president, said that "evasiveness only creates unnecessary suspicion and what has happened is therefore very unfortunate".

He remained confident, however, that the matter would be "sorted out quickly".

Willy Spies, of the Freedom Front Plus, said that the Presidency's evasiveness was appalling and demonstrated a lack of transparency.

"I fear a cover-up here," he said, "and I think more is going to come out about the business relationships between the people on the flight and others in the UAE. I am afraid that I smell the Oilgate plot thickening again."

Mazibuko-Skweyiya last year made headlines after the Mail and Guardian reported as part of its "Oilgate" expose that in addition to R11-million paid to the ANC from money advanced from State oil company Petro SA, Imvume Management head Sandi Majali also paid R65 000 to Hartkon, a company that renovated Skweyiya's home.

The payment was made on the same day a R50 000 cheque was paid to Bonga Mlambo, brother of the Deputy President.

Mazibuko-Skweyiya said at the time she had repaid the R65 000 "loan".

Mlambo said the money was for work done by his company. The Public Protector found no wrong doing.

Koos van der Merwe, chief whip of the IFP, said: "The Presidency is in a crisis. This is a crisis cover-up. But it won't work.

"The country is entitled to know what happened - and we fill find out."

The Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, of the ACDP, said that "hide and seek cancels out all the transparency we are supposed to believe in".

"Anyway, it's unwise, to say the least, to spend half a million or more on a holiday when people are screaming about service delivery," Meshoe said.

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