Gigaba labelled a liar over OR Tambo private terminal

Nicky Oppenheimer.
Nicky Oppenheimer.
Image: Robert Tshabalala

One of Africa's richest men‚ Nicky Oppenheimer‚ who is also the chairperson of Fireblade Aviation‚ and former ANC politician-turned-businessman Manne Dipico have accused home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba of lying to Parliament.

The accusation is no small matter‚ as it is statutory offence under the Powers‚ Privileges and Immunities of Parliaments and Provincial Legislatures Act‚ and the code of ethics for members of the executive prohibits members of the executive from "wilfully misleading the legislature to which they are accountable".

Gigaba was already found to have lied under oath to the court and violated the Constitution in a case relating to the Fireblade matter earlier this year.

Dipico‚ who is a director at Fireblade Aviation‚ a company that operates a private terminal for business and non-commercial aircraft at OR Tambo International Airport‚ went as far as suggesting that the ANC should get rid of Gigaba as he was destroying himself.

He told a meeting of the National Assembly’s home affairs committee that Gigaba had given Fireblade approval to operate the terminal at the airport. Gigaba has denied this.

“That was an approval‚ finish and klaar‚” the former Northern Cape premier turned businessman told MPs on Tuesday.

He insisted rather ambiguously that Gigaba needed “to be assisted”.

“He needs to be assisted‚” he repeated thrice.

He later explained to the reporter following the heated meeting what he meant: “I mean‚ how many courts have already decided on that he did not tell the truth? You reach a stage‚ how many times can we tell somebody: please look yourself in the mirror and don't continue with this. I say to these members who are comrades‚ who are colleagues…it's now time to help. We can see he's just destructing. He will destruct himself‚ he will destroy himself eventually.”

Oppenheimer also told the meeting that “the minister lied to this committee”.

He added that he took offence from Gigaba's suggestion that the company may have bribed somebody or that a leaked internal memo was the only way the Oppenheimers could be operating from the international airport.

At issue‚ is the effect of the arrangement between Fireblade Aviation and the state on the state's coffers. There are also questions over whether a written agreement exists between the two or whether they had a gentlemen's agreement.

In January 2016‚ Gigaba granted Fireblade approval to offer an ad hoc international customs and immigration service at the airport‚ but later backtracked on the agreement.

The Oppenheimers took the matter to court in 2017 and the high court ruled in their favour. It also found that Gigaba lied under oath and violated the Constitution in reneging on the agreement‚ and that Fireblade could continue operating its VIP facility at the airport.

Committee chairperson Patrick Chauke said he was concerned that a court order was issued in January affirming the activities of Fireblade to operate‚ but still no proper written agreement existed between the company and the state while the state was providing a service.

“We need to make sure the state services are paid for. The state cannot provide service to a private arrangement for free‚” he added.

Apart from home affairs‚ the departments of health‚ agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries‚ and the SA Revenue Service were providing services at the terminal.

Giving background to the business‚ Oppenheimer said that in 2012 he decided with his son Jonathan‚ who is now the chief executive officer of Fireblade‚ to explore a long-held ambition to invest in a world class gateway into SA for non-scheduled aviation.

Non-scheduled aviation meaning aircraft that are not run by major airlines or on a schedule‚ and which serve customers primarily in tourism‚ business and public sector.

Oppenheimer said OR Tambo International‚ unlike most major airports in the world‚ did not have a facility dedicated to both domestic and international non-scheduled aircraft movements.

Further research identified under-utilised land and facilities within the Denel complex at OR Tambo‚ which could be turned into an ideal terminal for non-scheduled traffic.

“We then entered into discussion with the Airports Company SA‚ Acsa's property company [Precinct 2A] and Denel. All parties were supportive of our proposal and in due course‚ we signed a lease agreement with Denel for the facilities in question and Fireblade Aviation came into existence‚” he said.

Oppenheimer said from inception Fireblade's business plan‚ which they shared with Denel‚ Acsa and other key stakeholders‚ was that Customs and Immigration facilities should be available on site and these were always to be manned by the state. Without the ability to support international flights‚ it was clear that the business venture would not be profitable.

“Both Denel and Acsa were enthusiastic supporters of the concept‚” he said‚ adding that Fireblade opened its doors to domestic traffic in September 2014‚ following an investment of approximately R150m.

Oppenheimer said that because of the need for the state to provide Customs and Immigration services at Fireblade‚ they knew that approvals would be needed from many government bodies - and early engagements ensured that the building's design had the necessary space dedicated to international movements and included those parties' specific requirements.

This process started in 2012‚ and over the best part of the next four years‚ 27 approvals by various government bodies were obtained. By early 2016‚ the sole approval outstanding was that of home affairs minister‚ but this was attained during a meeting at the minister's Pretoria office on January 28 2016.

The minister was Gigaba and he granted this final approval‚ according to Oppenheimer.

But following this meeting‚ he said home affairs failed to act on the approval granted by the minister‚ and it became clear that there was no intention of honouring the agreement.

After much toing and froing‚ the company took Home Affairs to court for clarity and on three occasions. The courts‚ including the Supreme Court of Appeal‚ ruled in its favour.

Jonathan Oppenheimer said it was never intended for Fireblade to be for the exclusive use of the Oppenheimer family. Rather it was intended as a gateway for SA to be a high quality superior product as is offered pretty much elsewhere in the world. He said there were 10 000 such facilities in international airports around the globe. And from the time Fireblade opened in 2014 there had been over 13‚800 movements through its terminal‚ of which less than 5% have been operated on behalf of the Oppenheimer family.

“Of this total‚ since February 2018‚ when the state agreed to provide Customs and Immigration services‚ 691 have been international movements‚” he said.

The Oppenheimers dismissed as “simply not true” reports that Fireblade's was the only privately owned facility of its kind in the country‚ and that it enabled uncontrolled flights in and out of SA and that the facility is for the exclusive use of the Oppenheimer family.

In May this year‚ Gigaba told the committee that he was concerned about the lack of adherence to the Public Finance Management Act and private ownership of international terminals. He said there was no policy on the privatisation of airports and in the absence of such a policy‚ no approval of this decision was formally granted.

He revealed that the implications of the court decision had set a precedent as Home Affairs had received two applications for “private family terminals”‚ from Christo Wiese for the Cape Town International Airport and Whitey Basson for the George airport. He said his department would approach the Constitutional Court to review and appeal the ruling. The committee wants Gigaba and his department to appear again for further clarity.

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