Editorial: Bad precedents for plane politics

Cyril Ramaphosa arrives in Japan in a Gupta-owned plane. (Kopano Tlape)

Cyril Ramaphosa arrives in Japan in a Gupta-owned plane. (Kopano Tlape)

When Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa steps out of a plane rented by the state but owned by the politically influential Gupta family it raises eyebrows – and so it should. There is far too much unsavoury political patronage in South Africa for us to dismiss such events. But in reporting and condemning and defending such instances, as have, variously, the media, opposition parties and the government, we always seem to miss the big picture.

The problem with presidential planes is not that the state paid for a trip on one owned by a politically connected family – it is that we have stumbled around for half a decade without addressing the structural problems affecting presidential transport that cause scandal to erupt every few months.

The air force does not have enough pilots or enough planes – not to transport troops and not to transport presidents.
Leasing private planes is rarely ideal, especially not when you require a hotel suite in the sky. A private plane with a private shower is a good indicator that you’re dealing with a drug lord or a big-business kingpin, because nobody who made their money solely through sheer hard work could surely afford, or want, such an extravagance.

Fixing the air force is hard. Buying anything expensive for the military remains politically fraught, thanks to our democracy’s primal sin: the arms deal. Spending money on comforts for government leaders was controversial long before Nkandla. Put the three together and you have a thorny problem.

Nonetheless, South Africa needs the capability to fly our top leaders to far-flung points, preferably without the need to refuel in places where a South African scalp is considered a nice decoration, and preferably with the ability to conduct the business of state while in transit.

Also, let us not forget those arrival photographs. We would prefer never to have to see any photographs of Ramaphosa walking through an airport hall straight off a cramped, 12-hour flight in cattle class on a commercial flight, because we imagine that would be the stuff of nightmares.

In South Africa, however, it is impossible to have a conversation about projecting a dignified image to the world through our leaders, because dignity has become a term perverted to include a lack of criticism. We cannot have a depersonalised debate about must-have amenities for the head of state, because our politics are so personal and factional.

  The Mail & Guardian has reported for years on the excesses, mistakes and manoeuvring around presidential planes. In all that time, little has changed, other than things getting more complicated – and slightly the worse for it.

Perhaps the time has come to try something new. Perhaps we should be asking Ramaphosa not why he was on a Gupta-owned plane, but what he is doing about the state of the air force. Perhaps we should be asking President Jacob Zuma not how much it cost for him to visit Russia in May, but when he will impose a rational policy regarding presidential travel.

And perhaps, if we can find our maturity and halt the cheap point scoring in this one instance, we can learn how to fix structures that need fixing instead of blaming individuals.

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