A controversial R2-billion deal to procure a new presidential jet from aircraft company Boeing has lapsed and the $10 000 deposit will be refunded.
This is according to Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who took charge of the defence ministry a little over a fortnight ago after an unexpected Cabinet reshuffle that saw her predecessor, Lindiwe Sisulu, redeployed to the department of public service and administration.
"The offer [from Boeing] lapsed on June 15. There is no Boeing that is being procured right now by government," said Mapisa-Nqakula on Friday.
"Although the need and requirements for air transportation for our VVIPs remain urgent, and that at some point a new procurement process will have to be embarked on, the department will have to conduct a consultation process that takes into consideration all our circumstances before a new process can start," she said.
VVIPs include current and former presidents and deputy presidents. Mapisa-Nqakula said that the new process would include all the relevant stakeholders, including the air force, which would determine the specifications required of the aircrafts and the national treasury, which would advise on procurement processes and budgetary implications.
Mapisa-Nqakula looked anxious as she responded to questions from journalists attending the press briefing in Pretoria. She said the aircraft in question had been built for another buyer, who had later cancelled the deal. Boeing had then put the aircraft up for sale but whether the aircraft itself fit the requirements of the defence force was unclear.
"The aircraft being negotiated was not necessarily what the defence force would have advised us to buy. Perhaps it's good that the intention to buy has lapsed because we can start a process that is consultative and will draw in the clients themselves to see what their needs are," she said.
Mapisa-Nqakula would not be drawn into commenting on whether the decision to accept the Boeing deal had been a fair one and would not assign blame for the debacle. She pointed out that Sisulu had requested that the matter be taken to the public protector for investigation.
"This is now the subject for the public protector," she said. "I don't want to prejudge the issue. Let us … give the public protector the opportunity to investigate fully and let's hear what comes out of that report, and not make assumptions that there may have been irregularities," she said.
She said a series of meetings have been lined up with Sisulu to discuss the matter and that she was keen to put the matter to rest.
Last month it emerged that the executive had approved the purchase of four executive jets and that the defence department was in the process of procuring a Boeing 777-200 LR business jet for President Jacob Zuma and a Bombadier Global Express 6 000 for Deputy President Kgalema Mothlanthe at a cost of $235-million (R1.99-billion).
At the time, the DA's defence spokesperson David Maynier called on Sisulu to produce evidence that treasury had approved the deviation from normal competitive bidding processes required by treasury regulations and the Public Finance Management Act.
Following the announcement on Friday, Maynier said he welcomed the news that the process to purchase the plane had been called off but that he still has concerns about the defence department's intention to embark on a new procurement process.
He said that, based on previous experience, this meant billions of rands are likely to be spent on VIP aircraft. "It is simply wrong to waste billions of rands on new VIP aircraft when so many people in our country are poor. Zuma has a perfectly adequate existing aircraft – Inkwazi, a Boeing 737 business jet – which is in mint condition. We must make do with what we already have," he said.
Avionics specialist Danie Viljoen, agreed that Inkwazi was still serviceable. "There's no technical reason why it's not sufficient. It's definitely not unsafe and there's definitely not a problem with maintaining it," he said, adding that Inkwazi could probably be used for another 20 years.
"In terms of the serviceability and usability, it's definitely sufficient. It's not past its sell-by date."
But, he added, the range that the aircraft is capable of flying, number of people a presidential plane should carry, and the image it portrays was another question.