Now the speaker joins the jet set

The private jet set has a new member. Baleka Mbete, the Speaker of Parliament, in January travelled to Monrovia in Liberia on a chartered flight with a price tag of R471 900.

The trip, which was not publicly announced, took place amid a storm of controversy over Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s use of an airforce Falcon for a holiday in Dubai with her husband Bulelani Ngcuka and Thuthukile Mazibuko-Skweyiya, the wife of Minister of Social Development Zola Skweyiya. That flight was immediately dubbed the “gravy plane”, and heavily criticised both as a departure from policy on the use of aircraft by senior government officials and as a needless extravagance.

According to parliamentary officials, Mbete visited Liberia in response to an invitation from Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to attend her inauguration as Africa’s first democratically elected woman head of state.
President Thabo Mbeki, also attended, flying in and out of Monrovia separately on January 16, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma arrived the same day from Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire.

South African Airways does not fly direct to Monrovia, but connections are available on West African airlines from Abidjan, from Accra in Ghana and from Lagos in Nigeria. Since news of the flight began to make its way through the parliamentary rumour mill last month, some MPs have suggested that Mbete opted for a private charter because she did not want to spend time on a lay-over in one of these cities.

Mbete’s spokesperson, Luzuko Jacobs, said, however, that had she flown SAA, she would have had to spend a total of nine days away from the office: “Preparations for Parliament’s flagship event — the state of the nation address — were at a critical stage, with the 3rd of February only three weeks away ... it would have been counter-productive for the speaker to be out of the office for nine days at such a crucial time.”

With that in mind, Parliament’s executive committee approved the charter on January 10 at a total cost of R471 900, he said.

The ministerial handbook, which also covers the Speaker of Parliament and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, allows for the use of charter flights where “there are time constraints in reaching the destination by scheduled commercial flights [or] where commercial airlines are not cost effective,” Jacobs stressed.

Travel agents approached by the Mail & Guardian offered business class commercial tickets to Monrovia starting at R24 500 including taxes (Mbete is entitled to fly business class in terms of parliamentary travel policy). The cheapest available economy class seat for a stay of less than one month was R10 270.

Mbete does appear to have got a reasonable deal on the charter. One local firm quoted R862 000 to fly an eight-passenger Lear 35 Jet from Johannesburg to Monrovia, with one refuelling stop in Luanda on each leg. Other charter companies said lower rates, around R500 000, might be available for more basic aircraft.

Swiftair, the Lanseria-based company that provided the charter, was reluctant to provide any details, saying it could not divulge information about its clients without permission. It is believed, however, that a small jet, probably a Lear 25 or a Citation, was used. The Lear 25 seats six and has a cruising speed of 800kph.

Apart from the aircraft’s crew, the only other passenger on the flight was Nomfundo Sonjica, a member of Parliament’s international relations staff.

Because accommodation was limited in Monrovia, where years of brutal civil war have not encouraged hotel development, the plane shuttled to Abidjan overnight so that the pilots could find a bed. Mbete herself stayed in Monrovia, where, according to Jacobs, she and Sonjica had to stay in “substandard accommodation”.

It is not clear why she could not connect from the Ivorian capital, as Dlamini-Zuma did, or why she could not travel with Mbeki, whose Boeing Business Jet can seat 18 passengers.

It is also not clear why the trip went unannounced. Mbete’s name does not appear in the press release issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs dealing with Mbeki’s and Dlamini-Zuma’s trip, nor did Parliament issue any communication about the inauguration.

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