Almost immediately after the news broke that Armscor had begun shopping around for a new VIP jet for the president, the backtracking and explanations started flying. “We’re not buying anything yet – we’re only testing the market. If we do buy a jet, it won’t be for R4bn. And anyway, a new aircraft will be a national asset.”
Which is “nonsense and poppycock”, to borrow a phrase from the Honourable Mangosuthu Buthelezi. A decision has clearly been taken to purchase a new jet, with the Request for Information stating a delivery deadline of 31 March. If it is not for R4bn, then Armscor must give us their budget, because their list of must-haves adds up to around that figure. A fleet of Ferraris, if purchased by the State, would also be a national asset, but that does not mean we should have it.
But the most dishonest line was the “guarantee” that Armscor would never do anything irresponsible. Our government just does not get it. Given our current economic predicament, buying any new jet – regardless of its size, seating capacity, range or level of interior trim – is downright irresponsible. Settling for something a little cheaper than the eye-watering R4bn quoted in the media, will not fool anyone either.
There are only two possible explanations for this decision to go shopping for a luxury jet, while our fiscus has run dry: Either President Zuma and his inner circle have no idea about the true state of our economy, or they know, but they simply do not care.
Unfortunately, I suspect it is the latter. The flood of warnings and reports about the state of our economy cannot have gone unnoticed. Every economist has spelled out, in much detail, the fate that awaits us if we do not curb our spending, and revive our stalled economy, urgently. President Zuma’s own Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, has issued these same warnings on many occasions, including in his recent medium-term budget policy statement. You cannot be president of the country, and not know that we are heading straight for a fiscal cliff. So, the only explanation left is that he does not care.
Or, perhaps I should rather say, he cares more about his power, his status and his image, than he does about the wellbeing of the country he was elected to lead. Because this is what Big Man politics is ultimately about – not being shown up by your peers. When the next international summit takes place, the presidential Boeing in the next-door bay cannot outshine your own. When you look at the cost of presidential aircraft in relation to a country’s Gross Domestic Product, South Africa is already in the top 10 nations in the world. Spending in the ballpark of R4bn on a new jet would send us up to third, behind only Zimbabwe and Kuwait.
Predictably, the very first response from the Presidency was: “We don’t know about this jet.” Now, if this was the first or second time the Presidency used this line, you might be forgiven for falling for it. But it has become such a standard go-to defence from the office of the President that I imagine they just change the details on the statement from the previous scandal denial, before re-issuing it. The President wants to know who ordered the Nkandla upgrades. The President wants to know who gave the Guptas permission to land at Waterkloof. The President wants to know who is trying to buy him a luxury jet….
When a Zuma scandal breaks and the very first statement from the Presidency contains the words “The Presidency wants to know…” you can rest assured that our President not only knows, but is intimately involved.
Another piece of spin that must not fool anyone is the claim that the President needs this jet. He needs it as much as someone whose car is five years old and paid off, “needs” to finance an expensive upgrade. It is nice to drive something new, but no one needs this. When times are tight, and your household income is not enough to make ends meet, a new car should be the last thing on your mind. Then you should only think about spending less, and trying to control your debt.
We are that household. South Africa’s income is insufficient, our debt is growing every day, and our immediate prospects do not look good. Everyone needs to tighten the belt, and spending billions on a luxury aircraft with every possible pampering feature on board, is not how you do it.
The current Presidential jet, Inkwazi, came into service in 2001. This is a Boeing Business Jet 737-700 with a range of 6200 nautical miles, fitted to a luxurious spec, and capable of carrying 18 passengers. The range means that some of the longer trips might require refuelling, but given that 63% of President Zuma’s trips have been to African countries within Inkwazi’s range, this is hardly an issue. A further 14% of his trips were to European destinations – some of which are within Inkwazi’s range while some would require a refuel in Africa. Stopping a couple of times a year to refuel the plane vs spending R4bn that we do not have, on a new jet? It shouldn’t even be a question.
It is also telling that further questions around the President’s travel remain unanswered. All this information was made public when Thabo Mbeki was President, one can only assume that the Presidency under Jacob Zuma is deliberately withholding any information that would undermine his “need” for a new jet. Considering that the average business jet flies around 800 hours a year, Inkwazi’s 500 hours a year means that this resource is under-utilised.
It cannot be a capacity issue either. Inkwazi can carry 18 passengers, which is more than enough for the President and his key advisers, but not for friends and family. If the Department of Defence claims that we need to expand our VIP fleet, then they must tell us who these extra VIPs, are and why they need a private plane. Ministers should follow the Deputy President’s example, and fly commercial airlines. And, should we on occasion need the additional capacity, we can do what the Indian President does, and charter a plane from the national carrier.
We don’t need another jet. We simply need to maintain and utilise the one we have. But we’re talking here about a President who thinks nothing of spending a quarter of a billion Rand from the taxpayers’ piggybank, on his own private mansion. A President whose multiple luxury vehicle convoys speed through city traffic with blue lights blazing, forcing “ordinary” South Africans off the road, so he can pass. A President whose Cabinet Ministers squeeze every last drop of benefit out of the opulent Ministerial Handbook, to acquire their own luxury German saloons, and then upgrade them every few years. A President whose allegiance is, first and foremost, to the inner circle of cadres, who protect his position of power, the businessmen who bankroll him, and the many downstream beneficiaries of his massive patronage network.
When it is your job to lead a country like South Africa, with all its challenges and complex issues, it all boils down to getting your priorities straight. A President must understand that his or her duty is to the people, and that their interests trump everything else. That, in a nutshell, is the job description, and it is repeated in the oath of office the President is asked to make at the start of his term. Twice now, President Zuma made this promise to South Africa in front of many witnesses:
I, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, swear that I will be faithful to the Republic of South Africa, and will obey, observe, uphold, and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the Republic. I solemnly and sincerely promise that I will always promote all that will advance the Republic and oppose all that may harm it; protect and promote the rights of all South Africans; discharge my duties with all my strength and talents to the best of my knowledge and ability and true to the dictates of my conscience; do justice to all; and devote myself to the well-being of the Republic and all of its people.”
If we had a president who stuck to this promise, we would not be in the situation we are in today. But we do not. We have a president who does as he pleases, and dismisses all criticism as sensation or conspiracy. We have a president who does not care that he is taking our boat over the waterfall. Eighteen months into his second term, Jacob Zuma is not going to change his ways. Instead, he will use the time he has left to cement his position, and ensure his protection. It is also clear that change is not going to come from within the ANC any time soon, so it is up to the most powerful people in the country to do something. Of course, I’m talking about the voters.
In every major crisis, from our electricity supply to our water infrastructure, and our higher education funding, there is always an urgent call for real, strong leadership from government. But in this crisis of a corrupt and power-hungry President, the leadership will not, and cannot come from government. It has to come from ordinary people. It now falls to all South Africans to display the kind of leadership that will stop Jacob Zuma from destroying our democracy, and reversing the damage he has already done.
If you think Jacob Zuma is destroying our country, then use your vote to fire him, before it is too late. This process of change begins with next year’s Municipal Election. DM