Hein Kaiser
4 minute read
9 Apr 2021
9:47 am

Controversial SAA vaccine flight branded a ‘publicity stunt’

Hein Kaiser

Chartering an Airbus at an estimated R5 million was unnecessary because J&J vaccines are provided on a not-for-profit basis.

Picture: iStock


The South African Airways (SAA) flight to collect vaccines in Belgium in late February was not only unnecessary, it may also have been illegal in terms of public finance laws.

Now, the Democratic Alliance (DA) wants to charge Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan over the fiasco.

Chartering an Airbus A340- 600 at an estimated cost of R5 million was unnecessary because, The Citizen has learnt, vaccine maker Johnson & Johnson (J&J) provides vaccines on a not-for-profit basis – and the pharma giant sells its jabs at an all-inclusive price.

This covers the cost of transport.

In deciding not to take advantage of that offer, the department of public enterprises – which chartered the SAA plane – allegedly violated the stipulations in the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) which outlaw “fruitless and wasteful expenditure”.

In-flight emergency

Flight SA 4272 has already been mired in controversy when it emerged recently that the crew had an in-flight emergency just after takeoff from OR Tambo International Airport, caused by their alleged miscalculation of the plane’s takeoff weight.

This resulted in a near stall and a crash was only averted when the automatic safety systems on the Airbus increased power and put the nose down to recover its flying attitude.

The flight has already been slated as a “publicity stunt” to prove that the bankrupt SAA is still a viable airline.

The Citizen asked J&J whether the company’s all-inclusive price for the jabs included the delivery of the vaccines and whether such an offer was available to South Africa.

All-inclusive price

J&J’s Mmakafela Mojapelo responded by saying that “the NFP [not for profit] price will last for the duration of the emergency pandemic use period and will be determined based on one cost structure, with all appropriate costs included”.

While neither J&J, nor the department of public enterprises could be drawn to comment on who paid for these charters, the spokeswoman for the SAA business rescue practitioners, Louise Brugman, confirmed that the national carrier was contracted by the department of public enterprises.

The Citizen also determined that cargo charges for about a ton of vaccines, on a commercial cargo flight, could have cost as little as R50 to R200 per kilogram, dependent on the service provider.

This would have created a maximum price tag of R200 000 for the taxpayer (for the one-ton vaccine load) as opposed to the reported R5 million of the SAA charter.

An Ethiopian Airlines cargo flight was scheduled for departure from Brussels to Johannesburg two hours after the SAA charter left Belgium carrying the vaccines.

‘Wasteful vanity exercise’

The DA’s Alf Lees says: “It would seem to have been a complete and deliberate flouting of the procurement PFMA.

“I believe Minister Pravin Gordhan obfuscated about the adherence to the provisions of the PFMA when asked [about the SAA charter flight] at the standing committee on public accounts meeting, precisely because he probably was fully aware that these provisions were not adhered to.”

The department of public enterprises said on 26 February that the SAA charter was intended to relaunch the carrier’s cargo business.

Aviation analyst Guy Leitch called the exercise a “wasteful vanity exercise to legitimise SAA and show that it still has some kind of role to play for the country, how the airline can save the nation. It’s flag-waving of the most expensive kind”.

In the past decade, SAA has drained the fiscus of about R20 billion, plus an additional R7 billion recently injected to resuscitate it.

According to reports, the business rescue process has racked up a R200 million bill for taxpayers.

Lees added: “The DA is of the view that criminal charges should be laid against Pravin Gordhan, the director-general of public works and any other person who may have played a part in authorising the use of the SAA services to fetch the vaccines from Brussels”.

Wayne Duvenage from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse said: “It would appear to me that there is a lack of planning and an attitude that is not focused on seeking lowest costs to society when it comes to the use of the state’s airline to retrieve vaccines.”

– news@citizen.co.za

Hein Kaiser