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Allegations fly as Blade is called in to cut aviation tension

May 06 2018 06:03
Lesetja Malope

Mortar bombs were allegedly illegally flown into Lanseria Airport and kickbacks allegedly demanded for transporting the bodies of those killed in the Lagos church collapse back to South Africa.

These are among the accusations senior transport department officials and former members of the International Air Services Council (IASC) have been making against each other.

Transport Minister Blade Nzimande has been asked to intervene in the standoff at the IASC, an entity that falls under his department’s jurisdiction. It is responsible for issuing licences and landing permits for foreign cargo aircraft.

A high-level, confidential ministerial brief was sent to Nzimande via his chief of staff, Lucky Masuku, on April 26.

It states that the IASC and the department’s director of licensing and permits, Vuwani Ndwamato, have been at loggerheads, mainly over the powers to issue licences and foreign operator permits.

The document is written by Ndwamato’s deputy, Andries Ntjane.

Among the allegations made in the seven-page document are the alleged loss of “millions of rands in revenue” because of the IASC’s backlog in issuing permits.

It also states that national security has been compromised because “private airlines and operators” flying foreign presidents and heads of state into the country are not vetted.

Ndwamato declined to comment to a detailed list of questions, referring City Press instead to transport department spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi. Mnisi did not respond to questions, or follow-up calls and text messages sent from Wednesday.

Ndwamato’s name again appears in a letter dated April 23, addressed to Denel chief executive Mike Kgobe. It was written by attorneys Nyapotse Inc. The firm represents former council members whose tenure ended in March but are contesting their end of their service.

In the letter, the former council members allege that Ndwamato illegally authorised aircraft to land at Johannesburg’s busy Lanseria Airport, carrying explosive material. By law, explosive material may not be landed at a civilian airport.

City Press established that the aircraft was carrying eight mortar bombs from Nairobi, Kenya. It landed at Lanseria in mid-April.

“It is our instructions that Mr Ndwamato has recently authorised an aircraft carrying explosive material for and on behalf of Denel SOC Limited, out of the Nairobi Airport to Lanseria Airport, Johannesburg. This is highly irregular and improper in that the department does not have the competency and authority to issue permits to aircraft,” the letter reads.

According to the letter, authorising the landing of planes is, by law, the preserve of the IASC chairperson.

“In the event that you ignore our objection, it is our instruction to bring an urgent application to have the said aircraft detained and its cargo confiscated,” the letter states.

Denel spokesperson Pam Malinda referred City Press to Mnisi and the transport department for comment.

The matter falls within the jurisdiction of the International Air Services Council, which is a government regulatory body that fall under the transport department. 

“The transport department would  therefore be the correct   authority to respond to this matter,” he said.

“Denel SOC Ltd, as well as any of its operating divisions and subsidiaries, was in no way involved in this matter,” Malinda said.

“Rheinmetall Denel Munition (Pty) Ltd, is a separate legal entity, in which Denel SOC Ltd owns 49% shareholding. The two companies operate completely separately as independent entities so Denel is not actively involved in the day to day management of RDM (Rheinmetal Denel Munitions).”

In a related development, former IASC chairperson Phetole Sekhula and other former council members wrote to Nzimande, highlighting alleged irregularities in the appointment of their successors. These included that they were neither vetted nor approved by Cabinet before they assumed their positions last month. Sekhula left last month.

The new council, whose appointment was approved by former transport minister Joe Maswanganyi, is chaired by Khalatse Marobela.

Malinda explained that the chairperson of the council was an employee of Denel SOC Ltd, a role he played “on an individual personal basis as a person with knowledge and experience in aviation and not at all on behalf of Denel”.

His role was in no way related to his occupation as an employee of Denel SOC Ltd, he said.

In their letter to Nzimande, the former council members demand that he set aside the new council’s appointment, or face being dragged to court.

City Press established that Nzimande met senior officials, including Ndwamato, on Friday.

The infighting and tension between the former council members and the department’s officials have been going on since 2016. A memo from Sekhula to then transport minister Dipuo Peters details how Ndwamato allegedly tried to get Sekhula to hand him the powers to authorise flights and issue permits, which only the council chairperson may do.

In the memo, Sekhula alleges that Ndwamato demanded control of foreign operator permits and was allegedly instrumental in the irregular awarding of a contract to repatriate the corpses of South Africans killed in the collapse of the church in Lagos, Nigeria, run by Pastor TB Joshua, in September 2014.

In the document, Sekhula accuses Ndwamato of assuming powers to issue landing permits for foreign aircraft operators. In one instance, Ndwamato allegedly almost caused a diplomatic row when he revoked a permit for three Boeing 777 planes belonging to the Saudi royal family to land at Lanseria Airport in 2016. From Lanseria, the planes were flown to Polokwane.

Sekula alleged that a furious Ndwamato, who knew nothing of the visit, ordered the SA Civil Aviation Authority to revoke their landing rights.

“A diplomatic row was averted by the timely intervention of the acting deputy director-general,” the documents state.

In addition, Ndwamato allegedly frustrated the work of freight company MK Freight Systems, owned by MP and Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela. The company exports perishable goods such as seafood and fruit to other African countries.

The document states that after the company raised concerns about the length of time it took to receive permits, Ndwamato allegedly summoned Mandela to a meeting.

Mandela denied being summoned, but said he met Ndwamato.

“I have a good relationship with the department and all its stakeholders, and I have never had a problem with them,” Mandela said.

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  •  This article was edited on May 11 2018 to correctly reflect the response from Denel, which was sent to City Press before publication. City Press apologises for not adequately capturing this in the initial article.

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