The business jet controversially bought for the use of former president Thabo Mbeki in 2001 is not good enough for President Jacob Zuma, a confidential memorandum written by Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and obtained by the Mail & Guardian claims.
The department, which faces controversy over its R800-million lease of new VIP aircraft, originally wanted to buy two considerably larger Boeing 767s for dedicated use by Zuma, two 737s for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and two smaller Challenger or Global XRS jets for “former presidents and ministers”.
“One aircraft for intercontinental presidential travel is woefully inadequate,” Sisulu argues in the memo. “In the event that the BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] is unserviceable or in servicing, there is not another kind of aircraft that is able to fulfil presidential air transport requirements.”
Motlanthe is currently flown in a Falcon 900, which also provides back-up services to Zuma. This 19-year-old aircraft can fly only 2 500 nautical miles before refuelling, less than half the distance to London, the memo points out.
Appended to the memo is a letter from aviation services firm Execujet, which acts as an aircraft broker, arguing that it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft than to continue operating those more than 10 years old.
The department apparently could not make its current budget stretch to the multibillion-rand cost of six new jets and so pursued the leasing deal. Ndivhuwo Mabaya, Sisulu’s spokesperson, said the matter was still being discussed.
The purchase of the BBJ, which reportedly cost a total of R600-million to buy, fit out and maintain, was defended against claims of extravagance at the time by the Air Force, which claimed it was the perfect tool for Mbeki’s international travel.
“The technical evaluation found that one aircraft, the BBJ, could meet our stringent mission requirements,” Brigadier General George van Niekerk, the acquisition project leader, reportedly said at a ceremony to mark the handing over of the jet.
“Our missions, normally departing from the Air Force Base Waterkloof, in Pretoria, with special altitude and temperature conditions, require non-stop flights to most European destinations and this airplane came close to meeting all of our specifications perfectly,” he said. But now Sisulu claims in the memo the BBJ does not have the range to reach London with a full load of 18 passengers.
Helmoed Romer Heitman, an independent defence analyst, told the M&G that he agreed with the South African National Defence Force’s VIP aircraft requirements but argued that a dedicated presidential aircraft was unnecessary and even “arrogant, given the limited budget available”.
“With the partial exception of the BBJ, the fleet is lacking in range. Getting the president or others to Europe or the Middle East without a refuelling stop is a matter of practicality and convenience,” Heitman said.
“Security considerations will mean that there has to be advance planning for the stop, which also means that there will be danger of a leak [of information] and a possible security threat,” he said.
“There is no question in my mind that we need the capability, but I believe we should be far more practical in our approach and that our political leaders should show the way by accepting convertible instead of dedicated types.
“[Dedicated] aircraft [are] not necessary and smack of arrogance — We would do far better to buy aircraft that are convertible between roles, having VIP modules that can be fitted as required.”
Mabaya defended the principle of dedicated aircraft for both the president and the deputy president. “The president’s demands [regarding travel to] the United Nations, the African Union, Brics [Brazil Russia, India, China and South Africa], as well as other matters in the continent and in South Africa, require that he must have a dedicated plane.”
The SANDF has since leased two executive jets for VIP use at a cost of R800-million over five years from AdoAir, a company owned by Nigerian businessperson Adegboyega Olulade.
The decision has been sharply criticised by the Democratic Alliance. “Why are we spending R800-million on aircraft for VIPs when millions of people do not have housing, health and basic services?” party spokesman David Maynier asked.