Ferial Haffajee: Does South Africa really need VVIP airports?

That Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba approved the Oppenheimer family’s request to run the Fireblade VVIP airport at OR Tambo airport is clear, even though he says it is not. If you read both the North Gauteng High Court judgment and the later Supreme Court of Appeals confirmation of the lower court’s decision, you will find evidence of the approval in those.

The bigger question is whether South Africa should encourage facilities like these. If you fly, you will see that the authority which runs the major commercial airports, the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), is beginning to creak.  

Our airports are not as good as they were when Monhla Hlahla ran ACSA: things often don’t work; they can be short-staffed; the choice of shops is sometimes odd, and queues are getting longer. Pilfering from luggage continues.

Why the decline? If you read Neels Blom's series in Business Day, you will know that ACSA is suffering "capturitis" – the affliction facing most of our state-owned enterprises. Because state-owned enterprises control significant budgets, they are targeted by networks of enterprise captors who commandeer the procurement funds with the collusion of executives, and repurpose the institutions to suit their ends. This is happening at ACSA. 

The accumulation imperative

The personal accumulation imperative impacts on service levels, and you can begin to detect the decline in public services. The pattern is easy to see at the passenger rail service agency, Prasa, in commuter and freight rail efficiencies (or deficiencies) at Transnet, and in stratospheric electricity tariffs at Eskom.   

The trend toward VVIP airports will exacerbate the decline of ACSA, and will see an important form of cross-subsidisation of its operating costs effectively privatised.  By allowing a commercial opt-out from a public service, the state, in effect, creates a dual system of airports. This will be yet another sphere where public service becomes synonymous with decline while private service is where excellence resides. 

Take a look at the images of Fireblade to see this.

While Gigaba tried to belatedly make a public interest argument for rescinding his approval for the Oppenheimers to be able to run Fireblade with full customs and immigration services, in fact, the truth is probably different.

It’s well-known that the oligarch Gupta family wanted to run the Fireblade service or something similar because they had aviation ambitions. I think this explains why the minister changed his mind more than anything else.

But as tycoons Christo Wiese and Whitey Basson line up to start similar VVIP airports at George and Cape Town airports, it’s worth asking whether the trend is a good one, or whether it extends South Africa’s high Gini coefficient (the measure of inequality) into yet another sphere. 

It’s not a view that Gauteng High Court (Pretoria) judge Sulet Potterill shares. In her judgment for Fireblade, she wrote: "Immigration through a port of Entry is by its very nature exclusionary; if one does not have a valid passport, you cannot use the facility. The whole nature of flying is exclusionary; a business class passenger stands in a different queue, and some passengers may use the business lounges and others not.

"On some airlines, free food is included and some not. There is a vast difference between commercial flying and chartered and private air transport. The reason for these choices is that airlines run a commercial operation with the aim of making a profit. Passengers choose an airline that fits their pocket."

The judge also said that private executive airport facilities were common across the US and Europe and took pressure off commercial passenger facilities. 

It may well be true, but VVIP airports represent yet another arena of South African life where the rich can opt out and leave mediocre services to the rest of society, instead of using their mega-money to cross-subsidise services and make them better for all. 

* VVIPs are very very important.

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