The defence ministry has dismissed criticism of its decision to lease two new luxury jets for “VVIP transport”, saying that the safety of the country’s political principals cannot be measured in rands and cents.
A ministry spokesman, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, said on Monday that the deal’s reported cost of R808-million for the next five years was accurate, but that it represented the “upper limit” of the contract and included maintenance.
He told The Cape Times he was “very, very satisfied” that this was the cheapest option available to the department, given the mandate of the air force’s 21 Squadron to provide safe and reliable continental and intercontinental VIP transport.
Mabaya said that the planes would only provide the so-called VVIP service, which is limited to transporting President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and former presidents and deputy presidents.
“The safety of our principals cannot be equated to any amount of money,” he said, adding that the air force’s existing VIP jets were “very, very old”, expensive to maintain and could no longer be relied on to provide safe travel for the head of state.
We cannot have the president landing in the DRC in the middle of the night,” he said, referring to an incident in 2009 in which a DC-9 carrying Motlanthe was forced to make an emergency landing at an abandoned air strip in the DRC.
He said the new planes would reduce the number of domestic flights undertaken by the president’s Boeing BBJ.
Asked if the presidential spouses would be using the new planes, Mabaya said that “the spouses cannot command a plane, but the president can”.
Effectively, the presidency could commandeer the VIP service whenever it deemed it necessary or appropriate, such as for transporting cabinet members.
Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told Parliament last year that chartering flights for the VIP service had jumped in cost from R3,6m in 2009 to R16,9m in 2010. This increase has been used to justify the latest spending.
However, the ministry cautioned against comparing charter costs to the R808m forked out for the new jets, saying that demands on 21 Squadron’s services would be even greater going forward.
Mabaya also noted that the cost of charters cited by the minister did not include the estimated R20m that former president Thabo Mbeki’s chartered flights to Sudan had cost in recent years.
When it was pointed out to him that the new lease would set taxpayers back about R160m a year, Mabaya said it was still the cheapest option available.
“Anyone who knows anything about aircraft will tell you that leasing is the cheaper option,” he said.
Government VIPs will now have a choice between two Citation IIs, two Falcon 50s, one Falcon 900, the new planes and the Boeing to choose from for their air travel.
Asked if savings were being maximised through the use of commercial flights where possible, Mabaya said: “The president cannot be expected to sit on a commercial SAA flight reading confidential documents.” Besides, the size of the entourage that accompanied the president could not be accommodated on commercial SAA flights.
The new planes will be fitted with two boardrooms, satellite communications and a double bedroom with bathroom. - Political Bureau