The she-said-she-said public spat between two powerful ANC ministers over the excessive use of ultra-luxury jets that had cost the taxpayer more than R40-million is expected to turn even uglier next week.
The squabble between Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and her predecessor, Lindiwe Sisulu, who is now public administration minister, could take an unexpected turn after a review by the South African Air Force of the number of times Sisulu flew on Gulfstream jets between 2009 to 2012.
In the light of the dispute between the ministers, the Mail & Guardian has been informed by a military source that the air force has once again reviewed its records in an attempt to establish what type of aircraft Sisulu had used.
This was confirmed by Mapisa-Nqakula's spokesperson, Sonwabo Mbananga, who said the air force still maintained that Sisulu had taken 203 flights between 2009 to 2012, but was reviewing how many of them were taken on Gulfstream jets.
"The review will entail a breakdown of what type of plane was used and when," said Mbananga. "The fact that Minister Sisulu took 203 flights remains correct, but whether it was all on Gulfstream jets is being reviewed. Minister Mapisa-Nqakula will address the matter in Parliament next week."
The air force has also revealed to Parliament that Sisulu's flights over the three years amounted to more than R40-million, a figure that is unlikely to be disputed.
In another development, Sisulu's spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, issued a statement on Thursday, saying acting Defence Minister Bathabile Dlamini had written to Parliament to ask it to withdraw the incorrect reply given to it about the number of trips Sisulu had taken on Gulfstream jets and had apologised to Sisulu. "Minister Sisulu maintains that she did not fly 203 trips with an air force-rented Gulfstream plane, but 35 trips," he said.
Mapisa-Nqakula is out of the country and was expected to return on Friday. Her spokesperson said the apology was not issued on her behalf. "The apology was offered on behalf of the acting minister and that was her prerogative to do so."
In an unprecedented step, Sisulu lodged a complaint with Parliament earlier this week, complaining that Mapisa-Nqakula had misled Parliament by releasing the information. Mapisa-Nqakula had in turn written to Parliament to say that the figures supplied by her were signed off by the chief of the air force, who confirmed the validity of the information provided to Parliament.
In a strongly worded statement to the media this week, Mapisa-Nqakula refused to back down. "Furthermore, Minister Mapisa-Nqakula wishes to place on record that she takes strong exception to the allegation that she misled Parliament or deliberately misled Parliament in providing a response to the parliamentary question," wrote Mbananga. "This information has been verified afresh and is confirmed once again as being correct, because it was provided by the South African Air Force to the office of the minister of defence and military veterans."
In a press statement, Sisulu noted "with serious concern" the alleged incorrect and misleading information submitted by Mapisa-Nqakula on her official travel using hired aeroplanes flown by pilots of the air force reserve squadron. "Official records in the ministry reflect that Minister Sisulu undertook 35 official trips with South African Air Force-hired planes between 2009 and 2012," Mabaya said.
Last week Mabaya did not dispute the information provided to Parliament about the number of flights Sisulu had taken on Gulfstream jets when the M&G sent her questions. But by Wednesday the office of the speaker of the National Assembly had received the written complaint from Sisulu, disputing the numbers of executive jet flights she had taken during her tenure, Parliament confirmed. Because the speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, is her brother, it is expected that he will have to recuse himself from adjudicating over this delicate matter.
The office of the speaker also confirmed it had received a letter from Mapisa-Nqakula explaining that the figures she had presented were given to her by the air force in reply to a question from Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier.
The M&G story last week sparked a fuss over the validity of the answer. When Maynier had accused Sisulu the previous week of spending R40-million on her VIP flights over three years, mostly on Gulfstream jets, there was hardly a ripple from the press or politicians.
One of the companies that was regularly used was the Lanseria-based corporate jet service Zenith Air, which charges R68 000 a flying hour "all in", including the pilot and other costs. No discounts are offered and everybody pays the same rates, according to Raymond Gnesin, owner of the jets leased by Zenith. By contrast, a flight on South African Airways (SAA) in business class, at current prices for a return from Johannesburg to Cape Town, would cost the government only R4899.
The ministerial handbook for members of the executive and presiding officers states that members of the executive can use military aircraft for official use only under exceptional circumstances. Yet the defence minister and her deputy are expected to hand over all their travel arrangements to the South African National Defence Force, the M&G was informed by a defence source this week.
The reserve squadron that handles VIP and IP (important people) guests and reconnaissance flights, 111 Squadron,came under fire from the auditor general in the 2011-2012 financial year for irregular expenditure of R160-million arising from "sourcing of aircraft". However, the chartering of Gulfstream and other executive jets by the air force's reserve squadron is hidden behind a veil of secrecy, which has now been firmly pierced by the ruckus.
In the National Assembly on Tuesday, the tension was still rising over the debacle. Sisulu asked for permission to raise a second matter after her time on the floor had expired, according to the unrevised Hansard records.
She told Parliament that she had had an educational experience when she did not want to use the word "rubbish" in Parliament and was told the words "hogwash" or "balderdash" were to be used instead.
"Both of them apply to the honourable Maynier", she said to laughter. "Mr Speaker, I insist that I took 35 flights. Your flight of fancy, wherever you meet your journalists, or wherever you get your information, wherever you are handled from, there were 35. "
The assembly erupted and the speaker called for order. Sisulu continued: "I have referred the matter to the presiding officers and the leader of government business and they will respond to that tomorrow. So, you can keep your flea-infested body at peace and sit down."
DA MP Stuart Farrow came to Maynier's defence. "The minister indicated that the honourable Maynier had a 'flea-infested body', which I think is a verbal insult on an honourable member's integrity. I would like her to withdraw that statement, sir." The speaker indicated he would study the Hansard and come back with a ruling.
Maynier last week commended Sisulu for doing well on her new diet of "chicken and beef" on SAA.
He was nonplussed by Sisulu's latest stab. "This is politics and robust opposition. If you want to be in the kitchen, you have to be able to take the heat. I am unperturbed and will continue to ask hard questions."