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‘Exit meeting’ with UAE leader before Eastern Cape transport can shed more light on airport upgrades

‘Exit meeting’ with UAE leader before Eastern Cape transport can shed more light on airport upgrades
Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. (Photo: EPA / Georg Hochmuth)

The department has promised to report on exactly what work was done at the Bhisho/Bulembu Airport, but said they do not know at this stage as they are waiting for an ‘exit meeting’ with representatives of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

With the designation of Bhisho/Bulembu Airport in the Eastern Cape as an international port of entry set to lapse on 12 May, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is to appear before the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs to answer questions about the visit of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and his entourage.

Several ministers came together last week to provide an update on the visit, saying South African authorities “can account for every one of the visitors accompanying the President [of the UAE]”.

Motsoaledi and the commissioner of the Border Management Authority were originally called for a special sitting of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs scheduled for 2 May to “give a full report and account of the circumstances surrounding the landing”, but it was postponed to 5 May.

Motsoaledi issued a temporary designation making the Bhisho Airport a port of entry so that the UAE president’s plane and those of this entourage could land there. The sheikh was on a private visit to the Eastern Cape, where he owns a game farm.

The designation for the airport will lapse on 12 May.

The United Arab Emirates airplane at Bulembu Airplane in Qonce King William’s Town), Eastern Cape, on 26 April 2023. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Earlier in the year, Eastern Cape MEC for Transport Xolile Nqatha said in his policy speech in the provincial legislature that part of the airport was occupied by the South African National Defence Force for the next three years. 

“Additionally, the department is also in engagements with the government of the United Arab Emirates as an additional tenant of the airport, who will invest +-R50-million to upgrade Bhisho Airport as part of a pledge by their late President, His Excellency Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The investment will help drive the much-needed revival of the provincial economy from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

Later, the department’s spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, said there was a donation of R20-million to refurbish the airport. He subsequently explained that there was no public procurement of contractors and that it was organised and paid for by the UAE.

Binqose said they will have an exit meeting at a future date, which has not yet been set, to discuss these details and said the department will then account for what was done at the airport.

He said there was no written agreement about the use of or alterations done at the airport, but added that the department’s aviation experts were present to make sure that things were in line with South African standards.

“All will be revealed in due time,” he said. “Like we said, we must quantify the work that was done there. We owe it to the public to tell them exactly what was done and by whom.

“We are due to have an exit meeting with them. The airport wasn’t taken over by the UAE. There are people permanently employed there.”

On Friday last week, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni was joined in a press briefing by Motsoaledi, Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza, Police Minister Bheki Cele, Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga, Defence Minister Thandi Modise, Acting Premier of the Eastern Cape Xolile Nqatha – who is also the province’s Transport MEC – and Cassius Sinthumule, head of air modalities in the South African Revenue Service, with responsibility for airports.

At the briefing, Ntshavheni said there had been a “range of insinuations” that suggested something improper had unfolded during the Eastern Cape’s preparation for this visit “by a prestigious guest to our country”.

She added that South Africa’s preparations were in line with the internationally practiced hosting provisions that countries offer heads of state or government and other dignitaries on a mutual basis. DM/MC

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