OPINION: The #VIPjet Catch-22

It was December 2006 and I remember the morning vividly. It was a scorching hot Pretoria summer's day and then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota had called an urgent press conference. Journalists had already begun winding down towards the silly season and some arrived at the briefing in shorts and slops. Lekota was all business though.

The minister was responding to a gravy plane scandal.

Then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka had used a chartered plane to fly to Britain for an official visit. The trip had cost the taxpayer R4.5million. Lekota called the spending 'irregular' and 'shocking'.

Just a few months prior, a similar storm had erupted when Mlambo-Ngcuka had used a South African Air Force (SAAF) jet to fly her and her family to Dubai for a holiday, at a cost of R700,000.

Lekota was under pressure to act and so he appointed an independent outsider to head up an inquiry into the chartering of private planes for VIPs. Respected advocate Kgomotso Moroka SC conducted that probe and submitted her report to Lekota. He publicly stated that this was done in order for action to be taken.

That report never saw the light of day. No action was ever taken.

Over the past ten years I have done countless stories about gravy planes, VIP jets, charter leases and I have asked question after question about why so much money is being spent by the department of defence (DoD) on hiring private planes to ferry the country's leaders. Also, who is benefitting from the gross expenditure?

In 2009, we reported how then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe's jet had to make an emergency landing on an unlit runway in the Democratic Republic of Congo after missing a fuel stop while returning from Libya.

In 2011, we told how Motlanthe's plane again had to make an emergency landing in New Zealand after a warning light came on in the chartered aircraft. Officials downplayed the issue and gave an assurance that the safety and security of the deputy president was paramount.

Also in 2011, we revealed how President Jacob Zuma was flown to the United States on a revamped luxury jet owned by prominent ANC backer Ivor Ichikowitz. The Boeing 727 was leased for Zuma by the DoD while his regular Boeing business jet was undergoing a three-month long service. It was estimated the trip cost the government R6 million.

A year later, in an embarrassing PR snafu, the SAAF had to publicly backtrack and admit that it chartered a private plane to shadow Zuma's jet to the United States and be on standby. This was because the president apparently had a crucial time-critical engagement on the way back to South Africa and couldn't take the chance of missing the appointment. So concerned were the SAAF officials about the state of their own jets that they had to splash out millions just in case something fell apart.

Then in 2014, the Ichikowitz-owned luxury jet was again hired for Zuma to fly to the United States. Yet many more millions were spent and yet again a massive media controversy.

Last year, the Democratic Alliance revealed that nearly R11 million was blown by former defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu on ultra-luxury Gulfstream jets between 2009 and 2012. A reply to a parliamentary question stated that Sisulu had undertaken 103 flights and 69 ferry flights on the Gulfstream jets during that time period - instead of using commercial planes.

Most recently, I broke the story about how a Gupta-owned Bombardier Aerospace was hired by the DoD to fly a high-level delegation led by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to Japan. The jet, with the registration ZS-OAK, cost an estimated R5 million to hire for the round trip. Subsequent to that story emerging, Ramaphosa has largely been using commercial flights when travelling overseas on official business.

It's important to understand the process supposedly followed when leasing these chartered planes. Essentially, the DoD is responsible for the transport of VIPs and the political principles usually don't show any interest in who owns the planes or what planes they're using. They just rock up at the airport and leave the details to the air force. Or so we are told.

Leasing is done through a central contract, an RTC-61, managed through national treasury. As part of this contract, a list of service providers are supposedly vetted and approved to supply private planes. As we understand it, the presidency will send its requirements for a trip to the DoD, the SAAF will in turn put out a tender to its approved suppliers, and through the contract a plane will be selected if it meets the requirements.

When the Gupta jet scandal broke, the DoD said that the SAAF was not privy to the processes of acquiring the service of the jet, although it does determine the technical specifications of the aircraft's suitability and safety requirements.

The entire process leaves plenty of wiggle room for blame and deniability. It is astonishingly easy for politicians to claim no knowledge of anything and for various arms of government to point at one another as they juggle the hot potato of responsibility.

So it is against this backdrop of repeated gross expenditure on hiring private jets that we need to view the latest storm of controversy around Zuma and the transport of government officials. At the weekend, City Press reported that Armscor, the defence force's acquisitions agency, is planning to buy a brand-new presidential jet at an estimated cost of R4 billion.

According to the published request on the Armscor website's tender noticeboard, the aircraft must be able to carry at least 30 passengers and have a range of 13,800km. This means the aircraft must be able to fly to Moscow or New York without landing to refuel. The plane must have a conference room for eight people on board as well as a private bedroom suite and bathroom.

The report about the R4 billion jet for Zuma has of course triggered a massive outcry. It is a huge amount of money and it is cash that many argue could be better spent on education, housing or just generally for the benefit of the people rather than the executive.

But here is the catch-22 that the DoD finds itself in. Its current fleet of aircraft used to ferry VIPs is insufficient, unreliable and old. This is why it needs to frequently hire private jets at great expense to the taxpayer. Each time there's a scandal, it says it has had no choice to do this because it doesn't have the necessary planes required for said trip. Everyone gets angry.

So now the DoD wants to buy a big fancy new plane to transport the president. This would probably mean the air force would not have to spend so much money on leasing charters. In the long run, the very long run, in the far distance, it would probably also mean a saving for government. Everyone is still really angry.

The defence officials feel like either way they can't win.

But surely they can. There must be a middle ground that lies somewhere between blowing millions of rand in cash every year on hiring jets, and the other extreme of looking for the fanciest, most luxurious plane to purchase for the president. Perhaps South Africa One doesn't need to be fitted out with a private bedroom suite, a state-of-the-art bathroom and a top-notch conference room. Also, it might be OK if it has to stop once to refuel on a long-haul flight and if it can't carry every single member of Zuma's Cabinet. Or his family.

The challenge now is for the DoD to find a solution that would appease everyone and finally put an end to the ongoing gravy plane scandals. Many would argue that the solution would see Number 1 simply flying commercial on SAA when on official business, like so many of his compatriots do across the globe.

Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener