The air force plans to spend about R500-million on an 18-month lease of a second luxury jet for President Jacob Zuma that aviation experts say he doesn’t need.
This is a stop-gap measure while the South African Air Force buys a second presidential jet at an estimated additional cost to taxpayers of between R1-billion and R2.8-billion.
Aviation experts and industry sources say all these expenses are unnecessary, that 21 Squadron at Air Force Base Waterkloof has enough smaller aircraft for local and regional VIP flights, and that the luxury presidential jet Inkwazi is in perfect working order despite reports to the contrary.
They also describe a short-term lease for a long-range luxury jet as the “worst possible option” because the costs are prohibitive.
Tender documents seen by the Sunday Times reveal the air force wants to lease an aircraft similar to Inkwazi, a Boeing Business Jet based on the 737-700, to start operating from Waterkloof on October 1.
The tender, which was issued on August 18 and closed this week, is for a luxury intercontinental business jet capable of flying 10,000km without refuelling.
It is understood that five companies put in bids.
The presidential alcove must consist of “private sleeping accommodation (double bed) and wardrobe facilities for two people”, a shower and toilet, and be “configured to provide total privacy”.
There must also be “a separate private conference area” for at least six people.
This means Zuma will have two luxury intercontinental jets flying at the same time. Once the short-term lease on the second jet expires, the air force wants to buy the president an even fancier jet capable of flying 13,300km that will cost between R1-billion and R2.8-billion.
Industry insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity said the short-term lease tender raised several red flags.
The tender requires a so-called “wet lease”, which means the owner provides the crew, maintenance and insurance. This will make costs rocket. There are no South African-owned Boeing Business Jets available, and the short-lease term means banks won’t finance anyone wanting to buy one to lease it to the air force.
This means the aircraft will be leased from a foreign company through a local partner or agent. The company will have to repaint the aircraft, register it in South Africa and employ a local crew.
Three industry experts said that under these conditions, the 18-month lease would cost between $1.5-million and $2-million a month, which comes to a total of about R500-million at the current exchange rate.
“It’s ridiculous – you can buy an aircraft for that,” said one.
Several sources said Zuma’s refusal to use smaller aircraft for short trips was the root cause of the air force’s need to buy and lease big, luxury aircraft.
Apart from Inkwazi, 21 Squadron has three Dassault Falcons and two Cessna Citations, but Zuma has insisted on using the Boeing Business Jet for short hops to Nkandla, Sun City or Harare.
“This is a spending spree and a waste of money,” said another source. “There is no logical reason for not flying Inkwazi.”
Their concerns were echoed by aviation expert Darren Olivier and South African National Defence Union leader Pikkie Greeff.
“All indications are that Inkwazi has flown fewer than 10,000 flight cycles and is accumulating them at far fewer than 1,000 a year. It can keep flying for decades before it becomes unsafe,” said Olivier.
The air force’s main transport aircraft, refurbished Dakotas and C130s, are 50 to 70 years old. “Both types are in urgent need of replacement, yet it appears a VIP plane has priority.”
He calculated the air force had only about R840-million a year available from its R6.8-billion budget for operational costs. “A third of the operational budget might be sucked up by this lease.”
Greeff said maintenance staff had assured him “there is absolutely nothing wrong with Inkwazi. This aircraft is in 100% condition and it’s sitting there gathering dust.”
It was a matter of great concern that paying for another presidential jet came out of the air force’s operational budget, “which is already depleted”.
Zuma’s spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, said the air force was responsible for providing a presidential aircraft. “The SAAF makes the determination regarding what’s suitable for use. The Presidency does not have the expertise or mandate in this regard.”
South African National Defence Force spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said Inkwazi’s “many technical challenges” were well documented.
Demand for flying VIPs had increased dramatically and was “in excess of approximately 600 hours per annum for the Presidency alone”.
He said 21 Squadron had to be able to fly the president and deputy president simultaneously. The squadron needed a jet on standby if the presidential jet was being serviced.
He said Armscor was investigating buying an aircraft directly from SAA “as part of the many options that are currently under way for the capacitation of the SAAF 21 Squadron”.