Daily Maverick

Flying home with Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the 25th Anniversary of the Afrexim Bank in Abuja, Nigeria, 11 July 2018 (GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa is off this week on his first state visits since taking office – to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – with a stopover in Nigeria, travelling in a chartered South African Airways Boeing big enough for two suburban ANC branches. It costs millions, but for now it’s probably the best of the bad choices – and he tagged along some hacks as well. Earlier this month, our correspondent flew back with the President from Mauritania after the African Union summit.

Even presidents suffer flight delays, especially when other presidents are involved. Summits, especially the disorganised ones, could be bad for one’s ego. That said, presidentially chartered flights will never take off without their First Passenger.

(You have to wonder if presidents are ever cursed with recurring nightmares about missed flights, like us mere mortals, but maybe their nightmares are bigger.)

They could, however, conceivably leave a lowly sky-hitching journalist behind after agreeing the day before that she could tag along on the direct, nine-hour flight, instead of doing a 30-hour route via Europe and back to Africa, as many people travelling to Nouakchott, Mauritania, from elsewhere in Africa have to do. Even SAA doesn’t have direct scheduled flights, the nearest being to Dakar, Senegal, a few hundred kilometres to the south.

There was a last-minute change in the president’s schedule, which saw staff scrambling into cars to make it on time to the airport, some 25km out of town. I bummed a ride with a deputy minister in an official car with a flag on the windscreen and a driver with a death wish. It was worsened by the deputy minister’s very loud attempts at making himself understood in English to a driver who spoke as little of the queen’s language as the deputy minister spoke Arabic or French.

Predictably, the 31st African Union summit in the specially-built Al-Mourabitoun Conference Centre nearby the airport with its specially-built VIP terminal, ended late, but still the South African takeoff was scheduled for 18:00, as if the continental body had ever stuck to its programme.

On top of that, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to make good on two scheduled television interviews on the ground – France24 and SABC – which meant his takeoff slot had to be moved later.

The wait at the VIP terminal wasn’t entirely unpleasant, because the desert night temperature was in the late 20s, and there was free sweet Mauritanian tea and snacks, including entire, dry baguettes (you literally break bread with those you share it with), and some interesting conversation in various African languages.

There was no duty-free shopping, though, but the presidents’ trolleys were already creaking under the weight of gifts. One delegation carried boxes with what looked like enough frozen fish to feed Lesotho (fishing is a big Mauritanian industry), but Ramaphosa’s guys filed into the plane carrying rugs on their shoulders, enough to carpet the entire Union Buildings, as well as Mauritanian tea sets and chests, among others, from his host (presidents were hosted in private villas because there were too few suitable hotel rooms). These gifts would presumably have to be meticulously declared in the register when he gets home.

Around 20:00, a zippy jet for the Côte d’Ivoire delegation came buzzing around the corner, loaded, and left. We waited. Ramaphosa was in a holding room in the section of the terminal where ceremonially dressed guards stood, possibly with some of the ministers who, along with a few staff members, avoided long flights back via Bamako and Kigali by also bumming a lift on SAA.

Shortly after the zippy jet left, the SAA Boeing slowly and massively pulled up, like an oversized family station wagon, and 27 people got in. It looked surreal and ostentatious – if you believe that size matters – and Ramaphosa and his staff are rightfully a bit sheepish when they talk about it all. The cost is high, more than it would have been if he had flown with his presidential jet or a smaller charter. Still, the president hinted that it’s better than flying in a chartered jet whose owners could end up being an embarrassment, and there’s possibly some savings on staff airfares because they all tagged along.

Also, he’s showing commitment to supporting the ailing national carrier, which helps. The presidential jet itself, Inkwesi, is currently under repairs and will be out of action for a few months yet.

Rapport reported on Sunday that the SAA flight Ramaphosa chartered to the G7 summit in Canada cost between R7-million and R10-million, which means the one to Mauritania must have been in the millions too.

In February, soon after Ramaphosa became president, a jet the Presidency chartered for him to fly to Botswana turned out to belong to controversial businessman Zunaid Moti, a fugitive from Interpol. At some point Ramaphosa even chartered a Gupta jet. When asked about the SAA charter, Ramaphosa wryly joked that at least there were no unpleasant surprises about ownership.

The gesture of allowing others onto the flight (there were no extra costs to the Presidency) was a kind one. At the same time the Presidency kept it clean – there was no sign of friends or family having come along for a joyride.

It was also not a working flight, unlike that of some presidents who travel with a press corps and give press conferences in the air. This kind of thing could, however, minimise post-summit delays in future. Just a thought.

There was no travelling with the people in economy class on this plane: everyone got to fly business class – from the president to his advisers, ministerial staff, their officials, this journalist, and government media staff too. The president sat in an empty front row and kept to himself, with a moody, unwell minister on the opposite side.

A few security staff members slept sitting upright in economy class, even though there were seats left in business. Perhaps they didn’t trust the rest of us, even if no alcohol was served on the flight, or maybe it’s part of their rules.

Other than that, the Boeing was staffed like a scheduled SAA flight, except the uniformed attendants were even friendlier than usual. One of the pilots was a black woman, and Ramaphosa shook hands and shared some jokes and selfies with the crew before the flight, which eventually left at 23:00, five hours late.

There were some musical chairs as the adviser seated next to the journalist realised there was some juicy confidential reading to be done in the air, and moved. This journalist barely made it through a lovely dinner of chicken and vegetables followed by a cheese plate – served in non-foil containers with real cutlery, and in three courses – before passing out in the seat-bed under the duvet-like blanket. It was a long summit and this was rare luxury.

Too soon, somewhere before a cold landing in Johannesburg, breakfast was served to those who bothered to wake up.

The plane pulled in straight to the OR Tambo International Airport VIP protocol lounge, which is being revamped ahead of this month’s BRICS summit, and people disembarked. I hesitated, waiting for the president to leave first. Planes can be uncomfortably intimate spaces. Then he gestured for a handshake, and joked: “They always leave me to get off last. I don’t know why.”

The president, aged 65, looked somehow fresh and ready for the Tuesday, while I was still trying to wipe the sleep from my decidedly economy class face. This would just be another busy day at work for him, while I would spend at least half a day just trying to come to terms with unpacking my five pieces of clothing. That’s probably why I am not the president. DM

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