African chiefs and their planes: South Africa plans to splash on three jets for Zuma & Co.

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From state-owned companies to prosecution services, tax collectors to police, South Africa’s most important institutions are battling themselves.

JETS and African presidents are a perfect recipe for controversy. The latest is in South Africa, where the government plans to spend 2 billion rand ($170 million) on at least three new jets for President Jacob Zuma and other top government officials, Johannesburg-based City Press newspaper reported, without saying where it got the information.

The current presidential jet, known as Inkwazi, has been experiencing technical problems, the newspaper said, citing Brigadier-General Marthie Visser, a spokeswoman for the nation’s air force. The government is considering buying a second-hand Boeing Business Jet for 600 million rand and two Falcon 900 aircraft before the end of this year, City Press said.

South Africa’s international obligations had increased, and on several occasions in the past few years, the government had been forced to hire aircraft, the newspaper cited Visser as saying. 

Zuma has undertaken 37 international visits and 40 local trips since April 2013, while Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has been on 25 international excursions and 21 local trips over the past eight months, it said.

The aircraft may be funded by moving money into the Department of Defense’s plan to cover strategic purchases, which is meant for equipment needed for troops, City Press said.

Amidst turmoil

The planned purchases come at a time when Africa’s richest economy is in one of the worst shapes it has been, and its politics in turmoil.

Infighting at South Africa’s power monopoly and biggest labour group last week exposed the chaos that’s come to characterise the rule of President Zuma as the country’s elites battle for influence.

From state-owned companies to prosecution services, and tax collectors to police, some of South Africa’s most important institutions are battling themselves.

The rifts have filled newspaper pages and drawn attacks from the opposition.

However, the position of Zuma, the man overseeing it all, remains solid, with his party quashing two attempts by opposition lawmakers to sanction him through no-confidence votes.

“We now have a state clearly led by a man whose method of governance is purely patrimonial,” Nic Borain, a political analyst who advises BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities, said by phone on April 1. “It’s all individual loyalties and client relationships between leaders and the recipients of services, all the way down to social grants and employment from the state.”

A crisis at Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., the utility that supplies about 95% of power in Africa’s most- industrialised economy, has curbed growth and added to the risk of further credit-rating downgrades.

Eskom’s power plants are unable to provide enough electricity to keep homes lit, and they the shortages are curbing growth. (Photo AFP).

The poor performance of other state companies has forced the government to provide bailouts to keep them running, souring investor sentiment.

The rand has weakened 11% against the dollar over the past year, reaching a 13-year low in March. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the rating on the nation’s debt last year.

Labour split

The African National Congress, which came to power with Nelson Mandela at its helm, has ruled South Africa since the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. During that time, it has expanded the provision of social grants and extended electricity, water and housing to millions of citizens.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, its biggest affiliate, have been kicked out of the labour federation.

Cosatu, part of an alliance with the ruling African National Congress, expelled Vavi on March 30 for “rebellious conduct,” four months after severing ties with Numsa after it withdrew support for the ANC. Once 2 million members-strong, Cosatu now faces a split as six more affiliates protest Vavi’s dismissal, threatening the ruling party’s influence over labor groups.

On the same day that Vavi was fired, Eskom Chairman Zola Tsotsi resigned when he lost the board’s support over a decision earlier that month to suspend Chief Executive Officer Tshediso Matona and three other senior managers. The company that’s struggling to fill a 225 billion-rand ($18.7 billion) funding gap and has resorted to rationing power because it can’t meet demand, is left without permanent management in its two most important positions.

While Zuma backed the investigation into Eskom and Matona’s suspension, according to the Johannesburg-based Business Day newspaper, senior ANC members were against it, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Easy analysis

“The big elephant in the room is the president,” Julius Malema, the leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, told reporters that day. “He interferes in every institution of the state.”

Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj said the view that Zuma’s governance style was to blame was “too easy an analysis.”

“Many countries have these issues from time to time,” Maharaj said by phone from Cairo on April 1. “We shouldn’t make too much out of the coincidence of time. There are problems and they’re receiving attention.”

South African Airways CEO Monwabisi Kalawe was suspended in October and is being investigated for corruption after clashing with the airline’s chairwoman. He denies wrongdoing and is challenging his disciplinary hearing.

The South African Post Office is under Treasury administration, while infighting at the state broadcaster, SABC, has resulted in board members being fired. The National Prosecuting Authority’s deputy head, Nomgcobo Jiba, was charged on March 24 with two counts of fraud and one of perjury amid a clash with Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega.

Hawks unit

The police minister in February removed Anwa Dramat as head of the Hawks special investigative unit for alleged involvement in the illegal repatriation of Zimbabweans. He was cleared of wrongdoing by an oversight body, and Dramat said he was being targeted for conducting probes of “very influential people.” Robert McBride, the head of the police’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate, has since been suspended.

South Africa ranked 67 out of 174 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, lagging behind African nations such as Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda and Ghana. More than 70% of South Africans say corruption has worsened since 2010, a survey released by the nation’s statistics office on Dec. 4 showed.

The ANC lost 3.8 percentage points of support in last year’s elections, bringing its share of the vote to 62%. While opposition groups will seek to capture Johannesburg and other major cities in municipal elections next year, no party is large enough to rattle the ANC.

What jets have to do with it

Purchasing presidential jets in times of economic hardship, or selling them for the wrong price, has come to symbolise leaderships that are out of touch.

Former Malawi president Joyce Banda started her presidency on a high, with her decision to sell the country’s presidential jet seen as a sign of financial good sense.

However, she then got embroiled in a messy controversy when it emerged she and her staff had links to the buyers. 

She lost the elections last year, after one term in office.

The West African nation of Mali last year also ran into diplomatic headwinds after its controversial purchase of a presidential jet saw donors cut foreign aid.

Bamako in May bought the jet for $40 million in a deal said to be irregular, leading to major financiers such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to freeze $70 million in funding to the country struggling to recover from internal conflict.

Mali, which was seeking billions in reconstruction funding, already had a presidential jet. The EU in December last month led the resumption by donors following the release of audits into the deal.

The outlandish

Some uses of commercial aircraft by African VIPs have also bordered on the outlandish, and ostentatious and riled the public.

Many reports speak of state owned carriers being delayed for hours to wait for ministers, being turned around to collect late First Ladies, and being commandeered for shopping in London, France, or New York by African First Families. 

Former Democratic Republic of Congo rule Mobutu Sese Seko takes the biscuit for ostentation, as he famously enjoyed chartering supersonic Concordes from Air France. 

One one such trip in 1989 saw him attend the French bicentennial celebrations in Paris, while he also built an airport that could accommodate the aircraft at his personal Gbadolite palace at his remote ancestral home.

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