By Andrew Kunambura
A serious diplomatic feud has erupted between Zimbabwe and its southern neighbour after South African aviation authorities banned all Air Zimbabwe flights in and out of that country on Friday and Zimbabwean authorities responded by grounding South African Airways (SAA) flights into and out of Harare.
The standoff comes at a time Zimbabwe and South Africa are engaged in a huge diplomatic tiff following the case of First Lady Grace Mugabe who faced arrest in Johannesburg.
Grace stands accused of severely assaulting and injuring a 20-year-old model whom she found at a luxury hotel in the company of her two sons, Robert Jnr and Chatunga.
As a result of the grounding, thousands of passengers were left stranded both in Johannesburg and Harare amid indications that presidents Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma, who are both attending a Sadc summit in Pretoria, could be forced to intervene.
The standoff between the airlines left South African officials seething with anger with one describing Zimbabwe as “ungrateful” amid indications that Pretoria will retaliate in a big way with a devastating trade war that will most likely hurt Zimbabwe the most.
It could not be established if the seized Air Zimbabwe plane at OR International Airport in Johannesburg is the same Boeing 767 plane that flew Mugabe to South Africa for the summit on Wednesday.
The 90 passengers who had already taken seats awaiting take off on the Air Zimbabwe plane were asked to leave the plane and were put into a hotel in Johannesburg, a senior AirZim official told the Daily News on Sunday.
A schedule released by the SAA on Friday night suggested that the ban had been imposed on safety grounds, with aviation sources saying AirZim had failed to produce the required Foreign Operators’ Certificate (FOC).
But Zimbabwean authorities immediately responded by ground an SAA plane that was due to take off at Harare International Airport and with SAA enjoying at least five flights a day into and out of Harare, it will turn out to be a huge financial blow for South Africa’s airline.
Besides the SAA’s five flights into Harare, the airline also flies into Victoria Falls and Bulawayo. Air Zimbabwe will not be affected that much as they operate just two flights to Johannesburg, one from Harare and the other from Bulawayo.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) yesterday barred SAA flights from taking off and landing in the country.
Inquiries by the Daily News on Sunday yesterday established that Caaz had also asked SAA to produce its own FOL, which it could not produce, resulting in Caaz prohibiting two SAA flights from taking off at the Harare International Airport.
When the Daily News on Sunday arrived at the airport yesterday afternoon, passengers who had been taken off a 7am flight were loading their baggage back into cars and driving off.
“We spent three hours on the plane only to be told that it was no longer taking off. They turned us away and said we would be updated regularly if there were any developments,” said one passenger who wanted to catch a connecting flight to the US at OR Tambo International Airport.
“Now this will have a knock on effect as I am now set to miss the connecting flight. This is so frustrating,” she added.
The second SAA flight also failed to take off as per schedule.
SAA has also suspended flights from South Africa.
“I was called by my client who is stranded in South Africa that they had been told that all flights (to Zimbabwe) had been cancelled until further notice,” said Destiny Travel and Tours agency managing director, Kudzayi Mundangepfupfu whose frantic efforts to secure alternative travelling arrangements for her clients were futile as other flights were fully booked.
SAA confirmed the developments in a statement released yesterday.
“The SAA advises its customers that its flights today, Saturday 19 August between Johannesburg and Harare have been affected by the restriction imposed by Zimbabwean authorities on operations.
“The decision to impose the restriction emanates from the requirement from Zimbabwean authorities of a foreign operators licence from the airline to continue to operate in that country,” the statement reads.
“Flight SA025 from Harare to Johannesburg could not operate at 0700hrs. SA022 which was scheduled to depart at 1045hrs from Johannesburg to Harare has also been cancelled.
“SAA is monitoring the situation and will provide updates on a regular basis and when there are developments,” it further reads.
It also emerged that two other airlines, British Airways and Fastjet had also temporarily suspended Johannesburg flights; although flights to other destinations were not affected, further pointing to a serious political and diplomatic ruckus between Harare and Pretoria.
Transport and Infrastructural Development minister, Jorum Gumbo, however, denied any diplomatic commotion between Zimbabwe and South Africa, saying this was purely an aviation issue.
“This is nothing to do with Zimbabwe and South Africa. The two airlines are only being asked by respective aviation authorities to comply with International Air Transport Association (Iata) regulation. Both airlines do not have the required foreign operators’ licences,” Gumbo said.
AirZim insiders, however, still questioned the timing of the developments, saying it was hardly a coincidence that the licences are only being required in the middle of a storm between the two countries.
It also emerged yesterday that the two aviation authorities have been allowing flights by both SAA and AirZim on the basis of a bilateral agreement.
“These are issues which should have been complied with a long time ago. There is an agreement between the two aviation authorities which I am sure has not been retracted. This raises a lot of questions,” a Caaz official said.
AirZim has a well-documented history of having its planes grounded in foreign countries.
In 2011, an AirZim Boeing 767-200 was seized in London over a $1,2 million debt.
Later that year, a Boeing 737 plane was impounded by South African authorities after the airline failed to pay a $500 000 debt.
In April this year, all five Air Zimbabwe aeroplanes operating in South Africa were grounded when they were declared not airworthy due to lack of service.
Last year, Iata banned the airline from flying to Europe over safety concerns.
South Africa, which is Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner, has been signalling that its patience is running out and it can hit back against escalating provocations.
Last year, South Africa stopped a shed short of burning its bridges with Zimbabwe when Harare introduced a blanket ban on several goods imported from the rainbow nation through the infamous Statutory Instrument number 64 of 2016 which triggered violent street protests.
Zimbabwe imports between 50-55 percent of its goods and services from South Africa while the latter imports just about three percent.
This means the escalating diplomatic row could hurt the two economies hard if allowed to degenerate further.
Zimbabwe could suffer further ramifications given that it has at least two million people living and working in that country on special permits granted by the host nation. Daily News