Johannesburg — The proposed purchase of a new Boeing 777 jet for President Jacob Zuma will not go ahead as the Unites States manufacturer's offer lapsed three weeks ago, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Friday.
She told reporters in Pretoria the procurement process was cancelled when the offer to purchase expired on June 15, three days after she replaced Lindiwe Sisulu as defence minister.
Mapisa-Nqakula said she sought legal opinion about the procurement process after learning of it from defence secretary Sam Gulube and the chief of the defence force.
"In the light of the legal opinion received, it was apparent that the proposal to purchase the Boeing Model 777 had lapsed on 15 June," she said.
Stressing that no sale contract was inked, the minister said the US10 million (about R82 million) deposit on the jet would be returned promptly and in full by the aircraft manufacturer.
The ministry confirmed that there was also an offer from Airbus to upgrade South Africa's VIP aircraft fleet but that this lapsed two weeks later on June 30.
"I have since met with the companies approached to submit proposals for the procurement of VVIP aircraft, including Boeing, and I have informed them that the current process has been cancelled."
She took issue with media reports that Gulube had used a recent trip to the US to finalise the deal with Boeing, and said the visit had been planned months in advance and had nothing to do with the procurement of new VIP planes.
Recent press reports have claimed clear documentary proof that, on May 29, Gulube formally accepted Boeing's proposal to purchase the 300-seat aircraft, and that the company set June 15 as the due date for a final agreement to purchase.
Mapisa Nqakula told reporters government embarked on a procurement process some time ago after it became clear that the fleet used for transporting South African leaders was due for replacement "due to maintenance and other concerns".
At the end of last year, the state had to lease VIP planes because part of the fleet was grounded for servicing for three months.
"Given that the majority of these aircraft have reached the end of their lifespan and were no longer technically serviceable, procurement for aircraft with a lifespan of 25 to 30 years was embarked upon."
She said the Boeing 777 jet came into contention because "Boeing happened to have this Boeing available" after another prospective client reneged on plans to purchase.
The government's plans to buy an ostentatious new presidential jet sparked controversy because of the hefty price tag, and reports that Sisulu had asked Treasury for an exemption from the normal procurement rules, citing "national security".
Sisulu reportedly proposed using a R3.6 billion refund obtained on the cancelled purchase of eight A400M Airbus military transport planes to pay for the Boeing jet.
The former defence minister, now in the public service and administration portfolio, has been challenged by Democratic Alliance defence spokesman David Maynier to produce proof that the procurement process was above board.
Maynier said if she did so, he would withdraw a request to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to probe the procurement process for the jet.
Sisulu has insisted that the process was above board, and has claimed that she proposed that the deal be shelved to give her successor time to define the department's priorities.
Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed that the procurement of a new jet was being probed by the Public Protector, suggesting that it was done at Sisulu's behest.
"My predecessor said this matter should be taken to the Public Protector for proper scrutiny."
She declined to say whether the legal opinion she obtained suggested that the procurement process had been appropriate and said this should be left to Madonsela to determine.
The minister said a new procurement process would be launched at some point because the need for new VIP planes remained.
This would be based on an assessment by the SA Air Force of its requirements for aircraft to transport the president, his deputy, and predecessors, as well as the minister and deputy minister of defence.