SHEIKH RATTLES THE GOLD
Generator included — how Eastern Cape government fixed up dilapidated airport for UAE royals
Once the hub of the short-lived and grandly named Ciskei International Airways, the Bulembu Airport near Qonce — despite a multi-million rand facelift in 2007 — had become a place where ‘airplanes did not land anymore’. But after a R20-million donation from the United Arab Emirates, the Eastern Cape government upgraded the facility and installed a generator to prepare for the arrival of the president of the UAE.
The princely sum of R20-million was donated by the United Arab Emirates to enable the Eastern Cape government to get the Bulembu Airport near Qonce (formerly King William’s Town) ready for a visit by the country’s royal family and its president.
This included a generator to provide power in case of rolling blackouts.
Private planes transporting the leader of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and his entourage, arrived at Bhisho-Bulembu Airport this week for a visit to the Sheik’s game reserve between Makhanda and Bedford.
Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane’s office said this was a private visit and not at the invitation of the premier. Khuselwa Rantje, the Eastern Cape government’s head of communication, said the airport was, in line with South Africa’s protocols, temporarily designated as a port of entry to enable the passage of the UAE leader.
“All relevant resources have been put in place at the airport to ensure adherence to the laws of the country,” she said.
“Bhisho-Bulembu Airport has been in existence for many years and upgrades were done years ago by the government. The province is working hard to strengthen trade relations with the UAE in various areas including education, agriculture, renewable energy, oil and gas, research and innovation, as well as partnerships in the aviation economy.
“Provincial government is negotiating the possibility of a joint investment project to raise standards at the government-owned Bhisho Airport, in line with requirements of an international cargo airport, as a start,” she said.
Rantjie said there were no agreements in place — they were still “exploring”.
“The province hopes to use this opportunity to convince UAE citizens that the Eastern Cape is both a tourist and an investment destination; thus, hosting their president is a crucial step in that regard,” Mabuyane said.
Mabuyane visited the United Arab Emirates a month ago and returned to South Africa on 4 April. Before his departure, he said he was discussing the refurbishment and upgrade of Bhisho Airport for the landing of wide-body aircraft.
In his 2023 State of the Province Address, Mabuyane committed his government to use economic diplomacy as an instrument to attract foreign investment to sustain economic growth and job creation. He has been clear that his plan is to make it easier for international visitors to fly directly into the Eastern Cape.
“The problem of limited international and domestic flights into the province is not only about tourism but also about reducing the cost of doing business in the province,” Mabuyane said.
Transport spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, said the Eastern Cape government received R20-million from the United Arab Emirates to do “routine maintenance” at the airport:
“There were no upgrades… What was done was garden services and cleaning it up, painting the lines and the runway… fixing it, replacing the lights. It wasn’t an upgrade. It was just putting on some touches to get it ready for the arrival of the UAE delegation for a head of state.
He said the contribution from the UAE included a generator for times of rolling blackouts.
“It has always been the dream of the Eastern Cape government to further use the airport as an international cargo airport,” Binqose added. “The successful landing of the UAE delegation has further demonstrated the capabilities of this airport and will serve as a motivation to push towards that.”
The airport was used by the South African National Defence Force while its office space alongside the facility was being renovated.
“No flights had landed there in a long time before the arrival of the UAE delegation,” Binqose added. DM/MC