President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Sizwe Ndingane

‘We do not have to explain to anyone the decisions we take. We do not need to call a community meeting about this and we don’t owe anyone answers.”

This was the defiant message issued by the Defence Ministry on Monday in a scathing attack on critics of the multimillion-rand chartering of “shadow” aircraft for President Jacob Zuma’s flight to a UN Security Council meeting earlier this month.

The attack comes after the ministry initially tried to deny the chartering of the aircraft, and follows a barrage of criticism over the hiring of a Global Express aircraft to shadow the presidential plane, Inkwazi, and the use of an SAA Airbus A340 in the saga.

According to aviation sources it can cost up to $15 000 (R120 000) an hour to charter a Global Express, with a flight to New York taking up to 18 hours.

The criticism comes hours after Zuma flew to Qatar on Monday – this time, according to the SAAF, without shadow aircraft. It is not known why back-up aircraft were not needed to shadow Zuma’s plane on this trip.

The saga comes months after the resignation of then-defence secretary Mpumi Mpofu and the attempted resignation by air force chief Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano over embarrassing incidents and close shaves involving the SAAF’s ageing VIP aircraft.

These incidents include the use of convicted South African mercenary Niel Steyl as the pilot on an aircraft chartered to fly Zuma to a UN General Assembly meeting last year.

In one incident involving the SAAF’s VIP fleet, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had to abandon a leg of his state visit to Nordic countries last year because of technical difficulties with aircraft.

 

While the air force and the ministry were quick on Monday to silence critics, aviation insiders say the chartering of the aircraft in South Africa was unnecessary and could have been done more cheaply.

A well-placed source, with inside information on the chartering of the aircraft, said if it had been necessary to charter an aircraft to fly Zuma around in the US, this could have been done more cheaply from the US.

“It would literally take one phone call to hire a plane and it would have been more cost-effective. Besides, if there was a problem in the air, what were those shadowing the president going to do? A mid-air transfer?” the source said.

“This is a total waste of money and there is something far more underhanded here. A lot more questions need to be asked.”

Defending the chartering, Defence Ministerial spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabya lashed out at critics.

In an interview with Sapa, he said the ministry did not need to “justify” itself to anyone.

“The funfair about the president’s plane must come to an end,” he said.

Asked to explain his statement, Mabya said a lot had been said during an hour of discussions, “and just to take three lines is not on”.

“Everyone knows this is not free, but those in the air force have to make difficult decisions,” Mabya said.

“Decisions are taken by the air force chief. He is a three-star general and makes very sober decisions, which must be respected.

“We do not have to explain to anyone the decisions which we take. We do not need to call a community meeting about this and we don’t owe anyone answers.”

Asked if he didn’t think the country’s taxpayers were owed an explanation, Mabya said there were accounting structures the ministry followed involving the submission of quarterly and annual reports.

Asked why he had initially denied the chartering, and confronted with audio recordings of New York’s JFK Air Traffic Control towers communication with the aircraft, Mabya said there was no way of authenticating the recordings.

“How do you know they haven’t been edited? How do you know it is not fake?” Mabya asked.

SAAF spokeswoman Brigadier-General Marthie Visser said the Inkwazi had been out of use for three months for servicing.

“Despite rigorously testing the aircraft after it returned from service, the decision was taken to charter aircraft to shadow the Inkwazi. This was done with safety in mind and the importance of the obligations that Zuma had to meet.

“The air force had to ensure that the president was in the US on time and that he was back the very next day for scheduled commitments here,” she said.

Asked why the SAAF’s other VIP aircraft, two Falcon 550s and a Falcon 900, had not been used and whether they were serviceable, Visser said they had been required for other government officials. - Pretoria News