Airport security is 'at risk'

A complaint to the Office of the Public Protector by the dismissed security chief of the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) paints a disturbing picture of dysfunction at the top level of the company’s management that allegedly led to glaring gaps in safety at Johannesburg International airport.

Acsa this week denied security was below par, saying the company complied with international standards.

Paul O’Sullivan, Acsa’s controversial group executive for aviation security, was dismissed by chief executive Monhla Hlahla in January after a year of running battles. O’Sullivan has retaliated in recent weeks by instituting a R20-million defamation suit against Acsa and Hlahla, and reporting them to the public protector for malpractice. He has also turned to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, alleging wrongful dismissal.

O’Sullivan’s claim alleges that Acsa or Hlahla were behind negative publicity while they were at loggerheads—including a November 2001 article in the Mail & Guardian that reported allegations, disputed by O’Sullivan, that he had irregularly obtained lie-detection equipment in the United States.
The article also reported the arrest on immigration charges of Mashudu Ramano, Acsa’s chairperson. Ramano, widely perceived to have sided with O’Sullivan against Hlahla, was released when the charges against him proved false.

O’Sullivan has claimed that a campaign against him and Ramano resulted from their cancellation in late 2001 of a R99-million private security contract servicing South Africa’s 10 main airports. Khuselani Security, the company that lost the contract, disputed O’Sullivan’s charge that its performance had been below standard, but lost a court challenge.

In December 2001 O’Sullivan lodged a complaint with the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), which oversees the police, against police NationalCommissioner Jackie Selebi. He claimed that Selebi was part of the campaign against him because the top cop wanted to protect Khuselani. Selebi later confirmed that police “senior management” had argued against the cancellation of the security contract, but said it was to ensure stability after September 11 rather than to protect Khuselani.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the way the security contract was handled, it left massive divisions within Acsa, with O’Sullivan and Hlahla the main antagonists.

It was not an easy time for Acsa. A number of widely reported crime incidents included a $6,5-million heist from a Swissair cargo and another of almost $10-million from a KLM cargo plane, both at Johannesburg International in the second half of 2001. At a time when the September 11 attack in the US required heightened aviation security, Acsa was shown to be vulnerable.

Documentation O’Sullivan handed to the public protector details the breakdown of relations—often backed up by e-mail exchanged at the time. In an accompanying affidavit, he charges that lax management, especially at Johannesburg International, and Hlahla’s alleged failure to hold the responsible managers to account, meant safety gaps were not plugged despite his repeated instructions.

Hlahla’s take on the allegation, as it appears from her e-mails at the time, is that O’Sullivan had failed as a manager.

In what seems an almost routine exchange, O’Sullivan wrote early last year to Johannesburg International security manager Thele Moema—and copied other top managers, including Hlahla—to complain that, despite earlier instructions, invalid security permits were not confiscated when staff illicitly tried to use them to enter the high-security “airside” of the airport.

Hlahla, in a curt reply, said: “Please manage these things with your colleagues. I do not need to know this level of detail except in your reports.”

O’Sullivan again: “I have only copied you because I thought you wanted to know what was going on at JIA. As you will have seen, these e-mails go back to August last year and problems still occur. This is primarily because there is no accountability ... I am powerless to do anything about it.”

Hlahla: “I will not respond to this e-mail. In terms of your ‘powerlessness’, I honestly feel that it is all up to your interpersonal and management skills.”

In January last year, days after the $10-million KLM heist, another e-mail to Moema complained about the alleged failure by security staff to confiscate invalid permits: “Thele, I know I don’t have to explain it to you, but for the benefit of those copied on this memo, if we are not going to follow the procedures, we might as well just leave the gates open and allow all and sundry to have access to airside.”

The KLM heist was a graphic illustration of what happens when airside access is uncontrolled. The minutes of a meeting between Acsa, the Civil Aviation Authority and police representatives after the robbery confirm the likelihood that inside information had tipped off the robbers, and that protective measures for the offloading of a valuable cargo were not all in place.

Equally disturbingly, if the minutes are correct, a security guard at an airside entrance boom was allowing cars in by swiping his own permit card, rather than the drivers’. The driver of the vehicle used in the robbery had a permit that had been reported missing two years earlier and should not have gained access to the runway area.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Public Protector this week confirmed that O’Sullivan’s complaint had been received and that the investigation was in “assessment” stage.

Acsa spokesperson Solomon Makgale said it was difficult to comment in detail without seeing the complaint. “However, we wish to assure the flying public that security at all Acsa airports, including Johannesburg International, complies with, and in some instances exceeds, the International Civil Aviation Organisation regulations and recommendations. Furthermore, security at all Acsa airports is regularly audited by the Civil Aviation Authority of South Africa and the Unites States Federal Aviation Authority. Acsa received positive reports.”

O’Sullivan this week told the M&G: “I’m obviously not able to discuss specifics relating to security breaches. However, I can say that at nine out of 10 of South Africa’s airports security is up to scratch. Regrettably that is not the case with Johannesburg. I have been calling for intervention and action against the management at Johannesburg International for 18 months, which has been met with strong resistance by the chief executive officer ... I can confirm security at Johannesburg International is in a mess.”

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung. Read more from Stefaans Brümmer

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