A South African aviation firm formed a joint venture with the National Security Service (NSS) — South Sudan’s secret police, which has been implicated in a litany of atrocities, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture. The firm, Vukani Aviation, was led by Nhlanhla Dube, a man who claimed to be the “commander of the presidential jet” during Jacob Zuma’s tenure, and who has previously flown Thabo Mbeki.
The link was revealed in an investigation by The Sentry, an NGO co-founded by actor George Clooney that tracks dirty money connected to conflicts in Africa; and independently confirmed by the Mail & Guardian.
In December 2014, a representative of Vukani Aviation travelled to Juba to file the paperwork for the joint venture, which was also known as Vukani Aviation. The M&G has seen the company registration documents, which give Vukani a 69% stake in the company.
The remaining 31% was held by Obuto Mamur Mete, South Sudan’s minister for national security. He is one of South Sudan’s most feared men. In official correspondence, dated October 2014, with the ministry of transport, roads and bridges — also seen by the M&G — Mete says that “the Ministry of National Security Service has made a joint venture with the company under strategic security programs”.
As part of this arrangement, Vukani agreed to operate a charter plane and two helicopters in South Sudan.
The notorious reputation of the NSS was already well established at this point. In its 2013 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House observed: “The National Security Service, an unregulated agency reporting directly to the president, has been responsible for arbitrary arrests and abuses.”
As The Sentry explained: “Public reports from the African Union, United Nations and human rights groups have clearly established the climate of fear and intimidation the NSS created in South Sudan.
Reports by the UN Panel of Experts from 2015 and 2016 detailed ongoing human rights abuses and power consolidation by the NSS through its crackdowns on journalists, humanitarian workers and anyone voicing opposition to the government. Punitive measures included harassment, illegal detention, torture, extraterritorial kidnapping and extrajudicial killings.”
Dube, 51, is no stranger to scandal. Shortly after the company’s incorporation in 2014, claims surfaced that he used political connections to unduly secure several grants worth millions to train black cadets.
His flight school, the South Africa Flight Training Academy (SAFTA), was eventually shut down by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) following a site visit to the centre.
Before the visit, several incidents, including near-crash landings and complaints from students and employees about the state of the aircraft, had led to increased scrutiny from opposition politicians in Parliament who also raised concern about how Dube accessed grants to train students and whether he was misappropriating funds and equipment meant for the school for his own personal use.
Dube’s former colleagues at South African Airways (SAA), including two pilots, expressed little surprise that he would be implicated in another controversy, with one saying he often boasted about being close to Zuma when he was an airforce pilot and part of the crew that flew the presidential jet.
“I think that guy is flying for the Swati king nowadays … He’s on contract in Eswatini and is based there,” another said.
Dube could not be reached on two numbers, but his former directors in the South African-based Vukani Aviation — who were also listed as contact people in the South Sudan organisation’s incorporation papers — Cynthia Radebe and Donovan Foley sought to distance themselves from the partnership.
Radebe said she left Vukani in 2015, whereas Foley insisted he went to South Sudan as an employee and refused to comment any further.
Hijacking a country
The Sentry’s report, released on Thursday, details how South Sudan’s resources have been hijacked by its ruling elite, with the assistance of individuals and corporations from across the world.
It concluded: “The local kleptocrats and their international partners—from Chinese-Malaysian oil giants and British tycoons to networks of traders from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda — have accumulated billions of dollars. The country’s natural resources have been plundered, lethal militia and military units responsible for atrocities have received financing and kleptocrats have lined their pockets with untold billions of dollars allocated by government programs meant to improve the livelihood of some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world.”
There has long been question marks over the relationship between South Africa’s government and its counterparts in South Sudan. Most recently, in May this year, former energy minister Jeff Radebe flew to Juba to sign an oil deal reportedly worth $1-billion — but the details of the deal have not been made public. Likewise, the text of a memorandum of understanding signed by the defence ministers of both countries in January 2018 has been kept under wraps.
In 2017, South Sudan’s opposition leader Riek Machar was detained in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Johannesburg — allegedly as a “guest” of the South African government, although his representatives claim that he was under house arrest.