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Mission impossible? SAA plane remains grounded following initial premature Polish clearance for take-off

Mission impossible? SAA plane remains grounded following initial premature Polish clearance for take-off
An SAA plane. (Photo: Daily Maverick)

Just when the South African government thought they had clearance to ensure that a plane carrying President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security detail, and a group of journalists, will be able to leave Poland, after nearly 24 hours on an airport tarmac, a new decision was taken to continue grounding the plane.

Just after 11am on Friday 16 June, an announcement was made that SAA flight ZS-SFX carrying President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security detail and journalists, could fly to Rzeszow, south of Poland. 

But within two hours the crew was informed that the plane will remain grounded but passengers and crew would be allowed to disembark. This journalist, who is part of the passenger group, has learnt that while most passengers will be booked into a hotel, some security personnel will stay in the aircraft which is loaded with weapons and other security equipment.

Twenty-four hours after touching down in Warsaw, and after Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, as well as Department of International Relations director general Zane Dangor, appeared to have obtained permits to ensure that the flight could leave.

It is unclear now what the reason for the latest decision to keep the plane on the tarmac is.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other African Heads of State participating in the African Leaders Peace Mission, hold a consultation while en route to Kiev by train. (Photo: GCIS)

Twenty-four hours and counting…

Members of the Special Forces and Presidential Protection Unit, and journalists, have been held up at Warsaw Chopin Airport since the afternoon of Thursday 15 June, in what appears to be a diplomatic nightmare. 

Polish officials refused permission to offload containers storing weapons and other equipment, with Polish ground staff flagging issues with permits. However, head of the Presidential Protection Unit General Wally Rhoode said that all relevant documentation was in place, and accused Polish officials of racism and sabotage. 

Rhoode has maintained throughout that the president would be protected during his many stops during the peace mission, despite this obstacle. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Standoff at Warsaw airport after officials try to confiscate weapons from Ramaphosa’s Presidential Protection Unit

Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya on Friday morning also confirmed that the president’s safety was not compromised. 

“I would like to assure all South Africans that there has been no compromise whatsoever to the President’s safety as the result of the charter flight which involves PPS and journalists,” Magwenya explained. 

Ramaphosa visited the Polish capital Warsaw to pay a courtesy call on President Andrzej Duda, who leads a country that shares borders with Ukraine and Russia, and is deeply affected by the regional conflict. He then boarded a train to Kyiv where he was to meet the Ukraine president.

The US and Poland are longtime allies with strong bilateral ties. The Polish government has been a supporter of continued American military and economic presence in Europe. 

Pretoria has recently been perceived as having a good relationship with Russia, which has compromised South Africa’s position with the US.

Over the next 24 hours, Ramaphosa is expected to travel to St Petersburg, where he and the African delegation are to meet his Russian counterpart.

Riddled with mishaps 

This mission has been riddled with a number of mishaps for South Africa since its inception.

First, the government struggled to secure a company able to charter a flight to a war zone. Most companies do not have insurance to enter a conflict-stricken area. 

Then, once airborne, the security detail plane’s pilot had to fly in circles while awaiting clearance to fly into Italian airspace. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Peace mission commences – Ramaphosa and African leaders to meet Zelensky then Putin

South African Airways Captain Mpho Mamashela noted that this was his first time experiencing such a dilemma since he became a pilot in 1982.

Trying to lighten the mood, Mamashela said: “We could be breaking a record. I think that someone should take a note of it and put it in the Guinness World Records. The situation of the aircraft is not a problem, everything that was supposed to be done, has been done. The whole issue is about the mission and it is beyond me. My mission is to get the aircraft here safely and as long as you are onboard we give you SAA hospitality,” he said. 

Mamashele and his crew have been making sure that all aboard were provided with food and drinks, but it seems resources are running low. 

The captain tried to keep up passengers’ spirits by playing local South African music, which created a short moment of comfort and hope.

Plane seats have become makeshift beds and small cabin bathrooms are the only source for passengers to freshen up. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other African Heads of State participating in the African Leaders Peace Mission. (Photo: GCIS)

Ramaphosa’s peace mission continues

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has continued with African Peace Mission proceedings. The President has arrived in Ukraine after a 15-hour train journey, where talks are expected to commence. 

Reuters reported that there was an air alert issued in Kyiv upon the African leaders’ arrival. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Biden administration shares concerns of US Congress over SA’s perceived support for Russia

Ramaphosa, Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema and Senegalese President Macky Sall are directly participating in the mission. 

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, Comoran president Azali Assoumani and Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso have all pulled out. 

Sassou Nguesso tried to persuade the other participants to postpone the peace mission on the grounds that the launch of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia had made a visit to Kyiv too dangerous. 

Magwenya said that despite the plane issues in Poland, the rest of the mission was proceeding as planned.

Earlier, Ramaphosa and counterparts visited the site of a mass burial in the city of Bucha in Ukraine, before they were due to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    Enjoying a train ride in a war zone, which is something most South Africans do not have access to in their own country.

  • Gideon Kruger says:

    If the President’s security has not been compromised, why then the need for the security stranded?

  • Sam Shu says:

    Omg, what a surprise. They clearly f’d up the paperwork. Who could possibly imagine that. 😂

  • rmrobinson says:

    Why does Ramaphosa commemorate the murder of citizens killed at the hands of the very country he supports?

  • rmrobinson says:

    Its a war but the trains work. Hopefully Ramaphosa learns something.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    I can understand why we are more than a little miffed at the Poles. If positions were reversed & they were to land at Waterkloof AFB they would have just been able to walk off the plane & make their way to the Palace of the Lost City – together with a Blue Light Police escourt!
    How unreasonable are the Poles! Permits for Weapons, original documentation requirements – what next? Oh Yeah – that’s it! A couple of people on the plane may or may not have obtained authorization & simply came along for the ride. That apparently is a problem – why I do not know.
    These Poles should know we do things very differently here. We had a Minister who diverted a Plane to go to another Country to fetch her Sons Girlfriend. That’s how self respecting Bureauucrats & Ministers should operate – not this red tape nonsense

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    Sounds as though the clowns think that they can ignore another country’s sovereignty when it suits them.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Just another ANC sh**show! Why are we not surprised!

  • Bill Gild says:

    I have experienced the misfortune of driving along the M3 (northbound) in Cape Town during two “blue light” police convoys. To say that these experiences were terrifying would be an understatement – numerous high-end (usually) German SUV’s, lights and sirens, very high speed, crowding motorists off the highway, brandishing what appeared ro me to be automatic rifles, and showing scant regard for the safety of others on the road.
    Their antics were not only unprofessional and dangerous to others, but put our notorious taxi drivers to shame.
    It thus came as no surprise to me to read that an entire planeload of these goons, apparently with firearms and who knows what else, had the gall to try and pull of their thuggish behaviour in a developed country.
    It must have come as a surprise to them to learn that not all countries tolerate this kind of behaviour.

    • Emily Buchanan says:

      I have never been more terrified than when confronted by the Zuma blue light brigade. I thought I was going to be shot, the security escort was so enraged by my not getting out of their way in the sparse milliseconds between me driving normally and them coming up behind me, sirens screaming.

  • David Pennington says:

    Eish Poland Baas,I got de gun, can me gets off de planes and wave de guns around baas

  • francoisdewaal99 says:

    We are told that the president will be kept safe at all costs during his “peace mission”, by Wally Rhoode. The same guy who’s name pops up regarding the CR farmgate scandal, and who scored big in very suspect contracts before the 2010 SWC?
    And while CR feels safe, warm, protected and welcome in a warzone, he feels no shame or concern for his own tax paying citizens, living in criminal war zone of the government’s making?

  • Tony Reilly says:

    Why do we need to travel to Europe with a plane loaded with arms and ammunition ? Obviously it was always going to become a huge problem. Clueless cretins in charge, as usual.

    • Michael Shepstone says:

      I assume this same plane and its crates of armaments are also scheduled to go on to St. Petersburg where doubtless the Russians will welcome them with open arms! I would love to know what’s in those crates!

    • Bill Gild says:

      Not necessarily clueless, but rather, delusional….

  • Tim Price says:

    Do any South Africans care if Ramalooter or any of the other ANC cadres in tow are safe? The whole exercise is a waste of taxpayers money and doomed. Our clownish Putin loving regime has no credibility.

  • Shafiq Morton says:

    Comments so far here indicate Poland is a right wing country vehemently pro-US. So, the plane is an easy target to get back at perceived pro-Russia allies. To send a message. It’s as petty and puerile as the comments here.

    • Tim Price says:

      No, your bias is showing. Anything to bring your anti US bile into the discussion eh?

    • James Miller says:

      Shafiq, I understand many South Africans are anti-US. They are entitled to their feelings and opinions. What I am disappointed by is the lack of objectivity which stems from this anti-US attitude. The fact that a large and powerful country like Russia has invaded a smaller neighboring country on the pretext of feeling threatened, does not overcome the prejudice in these people. The right and wrong of the situation could not be clearer, yet because the US is supporting Ukraine, some people’s knee-jerk reaction is to support the opposite side. Never mind that Russia is committing war crimes, indiscriminately destroying civilian lives and infrastructure. People who are so blinded by their prejudices will always find ways to rationalize their choices to avoid the reality which is plain to see.

  • David Katz says:

    Cyril’s friend Vlad could not stop his men from sending missiles to Kyiv, while his only friend was visiting the Kyiv. Cyril needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Vlad does not care if he lives or dies or whether South Africa is destroyed or not.

  • Rob Rhodes-Houghton says:

    The whole idea of a “peace mission” is a joke, as usual at our expense. You have to be delusional to imagine that Putin, or anyone else, would take any notice of this puny attempt. To quote one of our SABC presenters: “You cannot be a crocodile in another country if you are a lizard in your own”. In addition, I’m loving the middle finger approach by Poland: Rhoode and his cronies experiencing the type of treatment meted out to us at home on a daily basis.

  • roger seldon says:

    I’m not sure why any African leader thinks they might hold sway over the goings on between Russia and Ukraine.
    All anyone has to do is watch the sitcom Servant of the People for an insider look into the subtleties and insubtleties of Ukrainian social attitudes. This 2015- 2019 series stars Volodymyr Zelensky before he became president. Besides the antiquated (by Western ‘standards’) misogony and acceptance of graft as a way of Ukrainian life, African countries and politicians – mainly represented by Zimbabwe – are often the butt of jokes (and Putin too. You will see why Putin would love to blast Zelensky and the whole of Ukraine off the face of the planet).
    The attitudes in this sitcom series are somewhat representative of societal attitudes generally throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. There is a tendency to an indecorous attitude to Africans and African politics, as evidenced in Servant of the People. An African diplomatic mission stuck on the tarmac in Poland might be another piece of evidence.

  • petroscali says:

    Just another episode of the clown show.

  • Irma Kerremans says:

    Oh my goodness what an embarassment 🤦‍♀️ I am impressed with Cyril’s “the show must go on” approach irrespective of the drama on the tarmac 👏 Wally Rhode saying it’s racism… ai toggie

  • Kogi Singh says:

    A peace mission with a cargo of arms?

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