WHEN Malawian President Joyce Banda announced that she would be selling the presidential jet and the state's fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines, her actions were cheered by donors and the population alike. Banda said she was quite happy to travel by commercial airline, and railed at the cost of keeping the jet.
The decision is politically astute, but it's also extremely rare. There is nothing politicians seem to enjoy more than travelling in comfort and arriving in style. Equally, the popular sentiment against these flagrant displays of political ego is extremely high. It's perhaps the most gratuitous blind spot of those in power. Politicians the world over don't seem to heed public resentment of their mode of transport.
South Africans might think that SA's existing presidential jet, a Boeing 737, is extravagant. Yet, the president of Mexico has three 737s, three Gulfstreams, two Learjets and an Aero Commander. Oh yes, and nine helicopters. The prime minister of New Zealand has two 747s. And the list goes on. Although it is varied, heads of government do not appear to skimp on their rides.
The public, particularly in poor countries, tends to get angry about this expense, but it's actually somewhat illogical. The South African government has apparently begun the process of examining whether to upgrade the presidential Boeing 737 to a Boeing 777, which would cost about R2,5bn. This is a lot of money, but it's also less than a rounding error in the entire budget. If the criterion is how to save money, then small efficiency improvements to, say, the education budget, would go a lot further.
The public tends to have trouble understanding why the presidents cannot travel on commercial airlines, but realistically, this is ill-advised and difficult in practice.
Political figures are the targets of all kinds of physical attacks, sometimes deadly, so security is a legitimate concern. In any event, the last thing anyone wants, least of all the politicians, is flights delayed and people tossed off aircraft for the sake of a head of government.
Yet, it is possible for politicians to at least give a passing nod to value for money. The proposed, new presidential jet is a Boeing 777, which could travel from Pretoria to Washington without a stopover. But it also carries more than 400 people in a commercial configuration. Is that really necessary, when smaller aircraft have the same range?
Jets are available in all kinds of configurations, and new Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula ought to be able to find something more in line with the world's tighter economic circumstances.