Jacob Zuma chopper taxi gets chopped

2015-03-29 18:00

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The president’s family and friends have allegedly been able to take advantage of a military helicopter to travel between Durban and Nkandla at their leisure

President Jacob Zuma arrives at the opening of Eskom’s Ingula Power Station outside Ladysmith in 2012. Until recently, the president had access to a pair of Oryx helicopters. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

The air force has cut the backup helicopter service it provided for years to President Jacob Zuma’s family and friends travelling between Durban and Nkandla during the president’s visits to his family home, amid allegations that it was being abused.

Military sources confirmed this week the backup Oryx helicopter from 15 Squadron, which usually flew with President Zuma’s military transport, had been grounded because of a lack of funds.

And, insiders say, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has begun making inquiries into the alleged abuse of the backup helicopters by the president’s friends and family, who hitched rides from Air Force Base Durban to Nkandla.

Well-placed military sources confirmed that the practice, referred to in military circles as the “jolliepatrollie” and the “Zuma taxi”, was stopped two months ago.

Until then, the backup Oryx, for which the presidency pays the SA National Defence Force a discounted rate of R63?000 an hour instead of the standard R70?000 commercial tariff, had allegedly been used by friends and family members rather than the security personnel who were meant to travel with President Zuma.

As a result, his bodyguards were forced, on “several occasions” insiders say, to drive the three hours to Nxamalala from Durban, rather than flying there in the second chopper.

This has emerged in the week President Zuma called on South Africans to stop wanting things for free from government.

“If I was a dictator, I would change a few things,” President Zuma told the SA Local Government Association summit in Midrand on Tuesday.

“For an example, I would say to a family, you need a house, here is the material and only bring the government person to supervise. Build your house. That is what I would say.”

The president made use of the helicopters for the Durban-to-Nkandla leg of his trips home from Pretoria. He would land at Air Force Base Durban after taking a military plane from Air Force Base Waterkloof.

But presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj denied that the helicopter service was being abused, and yesterday said “no member of the president’s family has made use of the helicopters, except when accompanying the president”.

The “Zuma taxi” was first revealed by Beeld newspaper in 2013, which reported that two helicopters were used per trip – one for President Zuma and the other for his bodyguards and luggage. The second Oryx was also a standby craft in case something went wrong with the first.

But insiders in the military and Durban aviation circles have told City Press the second helicopter has been abused by friends and family members who have taken advantage of the fact that the presidency, and not the air force, is responsible for the “tasking” of the flight. This means presidency officials, and not pilots and air crew, were responsible for, and aware of, exactly who travelled on the helicopters.

A source close to the Oryx squadron told City Press that pilots and aircrew were asked to make statements to investigators from the SIU about six weeks ago – two weeks after the last “jolliepatrollie” took to the air.

Since then, all of Zuma’s helicopter flights out of Air Force Base Durban have featured a single Oryx. His security detail has travelled to his home by road ever since.

“[The pilots and air crew] were asked to make statements about who they flew and when and where they were flown,” said the source, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“They are in the dark about what is happening, as they don’t know who gets on and off the choppers. They’re told what to do by the guys from the presidency.”

Two other Durban aviation sources told City Press the “jolliepatrollies” had “been an open secret for years in Durban flying circles”.

“During the World Cup, the Oryxes were like taxis for the Zumas,” said one.

“It was even going on when he was deputy president. The air force guys don’t have a choice in the matter. There was always talk of wives, kids, friends and businesspeople hitching rides to Nkandla. We’ve also heard Oryx flights have now been halted because of a lack of budget.”

Military sources confirmed this week the Oryx helicopter service had been downgraded from two choppers to one.

SIU spokesperson Sefura Mongalo said that, in terms of the SIU’s governing provisions, it could only investigate “those matters in respect of which the president has issued a proclamation. Therefore, no proclamation has been issued to conduct the preliminary investigation stated in your query.”

However, SIU sources told City Press the unit did conduct preliminary investigations in response to complaints ahead of the process of a proclamation being issued by the president.

Defence force spokesperson Simphiwe Dlamini declined to comment, referring queries to Maharaj.

Maharaj today said the presidency rejects the “baseless and mischievous allegations” made by City Press, Sapa reported.

“Tasking for the president’s travel is made by the presidency and it is stipulated clearly that the aircraft or helicopter is being booked for his use,” Maharaj said in a statement.

He said that family members such as a spouse or a child may travel if accompanying Zuma.

The presidency has at no stage ever made bookings for family members travelling alone, Maharaj said.

He also said the SA Air Force has informed the presidency that no such misuse of the helicopters had occurred.

“The City Press reporter was informed by both the presidency and the department of defence that there is no truth in the rumour but the newspaper continued to publish,” said Maharaj.

“The presidency is alarmed by the blatant reporting of such an untruth, the purpose of which could only be to contribute to the stereotyping of the president and his family.”

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