Oppenheimer’s VVIP Terminal Scandal

By Pinky Khoabane

THE Oppenheimer VVIP Terminal reveals the deep level of state capture by South Africa’s richest family, and the man who’s fighting for his job today, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, may have been the only person who dared to stand up to them.

When one looks at the many government departments including a letter written by the African National Congress (ANC) it becomes very clear that the state had bent backwards, some public officials even violating the country’s laws to ensure the Oppenheimers got their own terminal. Then came Gigaba who some say was swayed by the Gupta interest in the terminal, to try and block the project but an email that surfaced yesterday, purportedly from the Oppenheimers to the Guptas bemoans the home affairs’ “stalling of the project”. The multi billionaires apologise for the delay in the application and assure the Guptas that they have  escalated the matter to former President Jacob Zuma. This is written in 2015 when the Guptas are supposed to have had the former president eating from the palm of their hands.

The whole project is a scandal of such proportions that if it wasn’t committed by the Oppenheimers, it would be on the front pages of this country’s newspapers for days. Firstly, the establishment of this terminal may be illegal or unlawful. In a letter written to the Oppenheimers in which Gigaba refuses them permission to operate he says: “The most Important consideration is whether or not I enjoy any power to designate the place ldentified by yourselves as a port of entry under section 9A of the Act. There are two statutory impediments to this potential exercise of public power.

“The first is that the port of entry requested by your Office will not be accessible to all persons, but only to yourselves, your associated companies and any other persons approved by you. In your correspondence you refer to this class of persons as ‘VVIPs, film stars, dignitaries and businessmen who travel by private aircraft into South Africa for their business interests.’ Clearly therefore the facility is not intended for the benefit of the public at large, but for a specified category of persons”.

In the same letter, Gigaba mentions a finance minister who had “raised concern about the funding of the facility. He indicated that after due consideration, he was of  the opinion that the costs involved in providing such service for a single facility cannot be warranted, especially as there are adequate clearance facilities at the main airport terminal building”. The said minister is now former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.

How this project eventually departed from the stated legal requirements and concerns by Nene to reach the stage of being operational, talks to the corrupt relationship between state and the Oppenheimers.

The judgement in the case Fireblade vs Minister of Home Affairs reveals that a contract to lease grounds for the VVIP terminal from Denel was concluded even before permission to operate the terminal was concluded. The Judgement reads: “On 2 May 2014 Minister Pandor wrote to Fireblade that a new Port of Entry required a collective decision-making process to ensure an integrated approach and therefore a work group consisting of the various stakeholder departments will conduct a feasibility study to consider the impact. The results of the feasibility study would be presented in June 2014.[6]” 

Denel, in 2013 when the Oppenheimers approached it, had no problem with the family operating a terminal from a national key point.

By then, Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) and ATNS [Air traffic and navigation Services SOC Limited] had also given their support to the project and committed to offering SARS Customs and Immigration Services. There were several meetings that were held and plans drawn up and concluded despite there being no permission granted. In a letter in September 2014, then newly appointed DHA Minister Gigaba informs the Oppenheimers that “Inter-Agency Clearance Forum [IACF] requested that a feasibility study be conducted to consider potential security weaknesses, the critical volume as well as the required resources. An international stakeholder feasibility study will be undertaken and Fireblade will be informed of the final decision.[7]”

On October 2014, the various departments at local level commit to providing staff and services to the terminal despite there being no approval.

By  May 2015, having received the letter from Gigaba which included Nene’s concerns, Fireblade writes back to the minister that the “process had started on 8 May 2012 and they are now greatly concerned because the delay is having a direct negative impact on large scale international investors looking to partner with Fireblade”. The letter continues “… We are further advised the Ministry of Transport granted their full support and approval dated 28 November 2014 for ad hoc border control services at FIREBLADE, including a complete report by the national Airport Security Committee (NASC) which was then communicated with DHA directly on 14 December 2014.”

At the time when Gigaba met Nicky Oppenheimer – at which meeting it is said he gave permission – there were several outstanding matters of security compliance for a national key point. Among the issues was the security vetting of staff working on the terminal, the costs of which the Oppenheimers were concerned about.

This is the meeting whose minutes some of the members of parliament described as “shabby” and which Gigaba contests knowledge of.

It is however an internal memo which the Minister is said to have written upon receiving a letter from Denel in as far as outstanding security issues are concerned, that the three courts have found Gigaba had approved but reneged later.

The memo reads:

“1. In view of this letter, obviously the letter from the Acting CEO granting Denel’s approval for the fireblade must be set aside, as advised by the Chair,

2. Anglo must be be made aware forthwith that the approval we granted then is also suspended until further notice, pending Denel’s investigations and their conclusions, and

3. Therefore, the fireblade must not proceed with this …” [34]

At the core of Gigaba’s battle for survival, which started with what can only be a horrendous past two weeks for him, is his contention that he never promised the Oppenheimers permission to operate the terminal. He says he had always offered “in principle support for the project subject to the conclusion of a feasibility study into the operations of the project, which would include the receipt of the outstanding approvals and the undertaking of the relevant departmental governance processes”.

The courts disagree but for me the issue is one of sovereignty as I explained in my article on the Oppenheimer’s

The court argued the issue of whether Gigaba had the powers to authorise this port of entry or not. SARS argued he didn’t which the court rejected. But the Minister seems to have come to a conclusion that he did because he now states that he couldn’t have granted permission because he hadnt received letters from the other government departments approving the project.

What we now have is a project that is fraught with disastrous consequences for national security and the financial management of most of the departments which work on this terminal.

A hearing by parliament into the Oppenheimer’s project reveals shocking details:

  • This VVIP terminal operates without an agreement with all the government departments that operate there
  • With the exception of home affairs which it pays “a pittance” according to the chairperson of the portfolio committee of home affairs, it has not paid any of the other departments operating there and there are many. They include SARS, health, police, agriculture, and many others.
  • The South African Receiver of Revenue Services (SARS) has not collected any revenue since this terminal started operating despite there having been planes landing and taking off. Fireblade has been operating for many years having started with local flights. The controversy revolves around its application to allow international flights to use the facility
  • It emerged from the parliamentary hearings that government officials aren’t even stationed there on 24-hour basis as they should when manning borders, they are summoned to the terminal’s staff when planes land;

And as we’ve said on this platform, very few events in history happen by chance. That Gigaba’s personal recording of himself was leaked into the public domain a day before the Oppenheimers appeared in Parliament is no coincidence at all. The parly show was followed by the public protector’s report and the ConCourt decision to dismiss Gigaba’s leave to appeal a lower court that found he had lied.

It’s important to remove Gigaba’s personal history that’s played out in the public space from this debate but we cannot ignore some of his poor judgements in how he has conducted his personal life. Some of his choices will not help his attempt to remain in office as the calls to have him fired keep rising each day.

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