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MPS SHOCKED AS MINISTER DOESN’T KNOW COST OF NEW AIRCRAFT

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LOBAMBA –Members of Parliament (MPs) were yesterday taken aback when Minister of Finance Neal Rijkenberg said he did not know the amount of money used in the purchase of two aircraft by RENAC.

This happened during the portfolio committee debate of the Ministry of Finance annual performance report where the MPs demanded answers on where the money to purchase the two aircraft came from. RENAC is the Royal Eswatini National Airways Corporation. Interestingly, the minister confessed that ‘he was and still is’ in support of the purchase of the two aircraft and that they were purchased at a discounted price.

Subvention

Siphocosini MP Mduduzi Matsebula was one of those who raised the issue as he first asked to know how much RENAC received as subvention, since it had been explained that it was a public enterprise. Matsebula said the amount received by RENAC as subvention should be clearly stated as he wanted to understand what the public enterprise did with it. “I am concerned because right now it looks like the public enterprise has a lot of money, such that it has purchased two aircraft. We should also be provided with answers whether the parastatal does submit audited financial statements,” said Matsebula. He also questioned the scope of approval of the two aircraft and whether a feasibility study was conducted. Also, he asked to know if the legal procurement policies were followed prior to purchasing the aircraft. “We want to know if we will get value for money in this and further ensure that the public purse is protected,” Matsebula submitted. Also raising the issue was Lobamba Lomdzala MP Marwick Khumalo and others.

Purchase

Giving his responses to the questions and concerns raised by the MPs, Rijkenberg first confessed that he was and continued to be in support of the purchase of the aircrafts.
This, he said, was because he believed in the commercialisation of  RENAC. He disputed what he termed an insinuation that the aircraft were of a luxury nature. “These are commercial aeroplanes. They were bought at a reasonable price but I still do not know the price, even though I know the overall budget,” he stated. He explained that all necessary feasibility studies were conducted and presented to Cabinet, which then approved the purchase of the aircraft.  The minister also informed the MPs that the money used to purchase the two aircraft came from savings the public enterprise had within its budget allocations. “I  understand the concerns and I agree that these aircraft might not make money, but if the feasibility studies are anything to go by, then money will be made,” said the minister. Explaining further, the minister stated that there was a bigger economic benefit of having a commercial aircraft. He said the bigger picture of the purchase would be seen in the investments that were being explored in various sectors, including tourism.  Rijkenberg said the country had already invested in the construction of the International Convention Centre (ICC) and was on the verge of introducing a game reserve in the Lubombo Region and that all the projects aligned with the need to have a commercial airspace.

“I can state that in the purchase of the aircraft, I was assured that all rules were followed,” said the minister. After the responses, MP Khumalo, the Chairperson of the portfolio committee, interjected and asked the minister to state the price of the two aircraft. In response, the minister said he did not know the exact amount but was assured that they came at a reasonable price. He promised to go and verify, after which he would include the price when he submitted a report containing the full responses to the questions and concerns raised.

Advised

“I can emphasise that we advised them to buy the aircraft when the market was down. The whole market for aircraft was flat due to the outbreak of COVID-19. So RENAC saw it as an opportunity, as the prices were discounted. There is nothing hidden and I have no problem bringing the information on the price,” said the minister. Other concerns raised by the MPs included that the ministry’s annual report made mention of public debt but did not provide a detailed analysis. Gilgal MP Sandla Fakudze asked the minister to provide a proper analysis that would give a clear picture of the loans owed, so that the country could be able to get a picture of whether the loans were justified and if they had been sought from the right organisations. Fakudze also asked the minister to ensure that the value added tax (VAT) was reduced. On another note, the minister spent time explaining the current issues in the health sector. He said it was not like government did not have medication in hospitals because of non-payment.

Shortage

He said the Ministry of Health submitted a budget and that the money was released on time. Rijkenberg said what then happened, leading to the shortage, was something that the Auditor General’s Office was currently looking into. He said he was hopeful that eventually, government would get to understand why it spent money purchasing medicine but it ended up not reaching the citizens. Another concern raised yesterday was that government did not give enough support to the AG’s Office, yet it did a better job than the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Almost all the MPs who debated yesterday decried that the AG’s Office only had 42 members of staff, when there were many government entities it had to audit. They also argued that the allocation for the office was released in bits and pieces yet the Audit Act was clear that the office should receive the money upfront as a lump sum. The MPs suggested that the office should be made independent and further removed from the Finance ministry. Nhlambeni MP Manzi Zwane submitted that, due to the small allocation, the officers were paid low salaries, something which rendered them prone to corruption. Other MPs made it known that they wanted the office to be removed from the Executive and be with the Legislature since the reports it produced were then used by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). In response, Minister Rijkenberg acknowledged the concern and said government tried to ensure that it released the allocation on time.

“Every quarter we make sure that the funds are available. We must also understand that the law provides that government must also pay suppliers, salaries and goods and services so at times we have to do a balancing act,” he said. As if that was not enough, the minister was called to explain the controversial tender which was allegedly awarded by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Also, MP Khumalo asked for an explanation into the position of the Farmers Bank. Khumalo said it was disappointing to note that a licence was issued for the Farmers Bank to operate but up to today, it had not. “I am wondering why the licence was granted if the entity will not start operating. If it does not meet certain standards then why not withdraw the licence?” he asked. The minister was granted the leeway to provide the rest of the responses in writing.

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