The South African Air Force splurged up to R68 000 an hour to fly the former minister of defence and military veterans, Lindiwe Sisulu, regularly on ultra-luxury Gulfstream jets during the past three years.
Before Sisulu became minister of public service and administration in June this year, the South African Air Force was chartering Gulfstream jets like taxis for her, frequently ferrying her for up-country trips and back to Cape Town on the same day, according to an inside military source.
Last week Sisulu was found to have taken a significant number of flights on chartered jets, but her spokesperson has blamed the R40-million she notched up on trips from 2009 to 2012 on decisions taken by the South African National Defence Force.
Many of the flights were domestic trips. If she had flown business class on South African Airways, a return trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town would have cost the government R4 899 at current prices. However, the Mail & Guardian has been reliably informed that a return flight from Lanseria outside Johannesburg (where many of the charter companies are stationed) via the Waterkloof Air Force Base on the outskirts of Pretoria to Ysterplaat in Cape Town on a Gulfstream jet cost the air force more than R200 000, which does not include the cost of the pilot and crew, food and landing costs.
The ministerial handbook for members of the executive and presiding officers states that members of the executive may use military aircraft for official use under exceptional circumstances only, but clearly this has not been regulated.
The Reserve Squadron 111 handles VIP and IP (important people) guests and reconnaissance flights. It came under fire from the auditor general in the 2011-2012 financial year for irregular expenditure of R160-million arising from the "sourcing of aircraft".
Veil of secrecy
The chartering of Gulfstream and other executive jets by the air force's reserve squadron is hidden behind a veil of secrecy, the M&G has found.
One of the companies that has been regularly used is the Lanseria-based corporate jet service Zenith Air, the M&G was told, but others are used as well. There appear to be about 14 companies in South Africa that lease out Gulfstream jets.
Zenith's sole director, Craig Gnesin, who is a pilot, would not discuss any business he had done with the air force, although he admitted that it had used Zenith Air's planes in the past. "I don't have to answer these questions. It is an in-house South African Air Force matter."
As minister of defence, Lindiwe Sisulu enjoyed the comfort and luxury of Gulfstream jets on many domestic flights. (Supplied)
His father, businessman Raymond Gnesin, was more forthcoming. He said Zenith Air's Gulfstream jets, one of which has the bling registration ZS-VIP, are held in a family trust.
"The family trust owns the aircraft and leases them to Zenith, which runs a charter operation," said Gnesin Sr. "Anybody can charter the jets and they will all pay the same rates. There is nothing dubious about it. We are strictly in the charter business."
The company did not offer discount rates, he said.
"Zenith will fly coffins for funerals and we will take you wherever you want. As long as everything is above board and kosher, the charter company is up for it."
Zenith Air's Gulfstream jets can take between 11 and 12 passengers and boast ultra-soft leather sets and galley kitchens. Gnesin Snr said he had bought the jets second-hand in the United States.
The company quotes its fees in dollars, which amount to R68 000 a flying hour "all in", which includes the pilot and other costs.
Last week Sisulu was accused by Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier of spending R40-million on her VIP flights over three years, many of which were on Gulfstream jets. Maynier said the major concern was that millions of rands appeared to have been wasted on hundreds of empty VIP "ferry" flights.
Maynier found that 203 flights were requested for Sisulu on the Gulfstream jets, but 69 of them were "ferry" flights to fetch her and take her to a destination. "This is a staggering waste of public funds when so many people in our country are poor," said Maynier. "Thankfully, the minister's wings have been clipped and she finds herself grounded … condemned to chicken or beef, on SAA, for the remainder of her term."
Asked by the M&G why she had not travelled on SAA, especially because many of her flights were domestic, Sisulu's spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, said she had no say over which planes she used and it was the air force that made the decisions.
"The South African National Defence Force insisted that, for all SANDF duties, their minister must be transported by their pilots," he said. "And the pilots came with a plane, which they choose, not the minister. It was not a decision taken by Minister Sisulu but by the SANDF, and for many years before the minister was appointed."
For her ANC work, Sisulu opted for SAA, said Mabaya. "Actually Minister Sisulu flew SAA for much of her ANC and constituency work."
Mabaya said Sisulu was not aware of the cost implications of her jet travel, because all the decisions regarding it were made by the defence force.
"It is still there today; it is a policy of the SANDF," said Mabaya. "I can conclude that, due to the age of the planes, they had to hire a lot [of other aircraft] to meet their own obligations and commitments."
Defence force spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said it should be noted that the defence minister was just one of the VIPs the air force was mandated to transport.
"I am not aware of any board of inquiry, as mentioned in your query," said Dlamini.
"However, I am aware of an exercise looking into the costing model of the reserve force aircraft.
"Lastly, any requirement by the South African Air Force is processed within and through national treasury regulations," Dlamini said.
According to air force information recently disclosed to Parliament, since April 1 this year no Gulfstream jets had been used by the air force.
It would appear that seat belts are now being tightened.