Monday, May 18, 2015


News that the SADC Aviation Safety Organisation (SASO), which is responsible for overseeing all safety precautions in the aviation industry, is moving its operations to Swaziland should raise eyebrows because the kingdom itself has no safety plan in operation should a plane crash at the King Mswati III Airport.

This lack of a plan was first disclosed publicly as long ago as November 2010, more than three years before the airport, dubbed King Mswati’s ‘vanity project’, officially opened.

But nothing has been done to ensure passengers have a chance of surviving a crash on take-off or landing.

Musa Hlophe, coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, writing in his regular column in the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in the kingdom, on 28 November 2010, asked what would happen if an aircraft with (say) 400 passengers on board crashed at the airport?

He wrote, ‘Assuming that we expanded our country’s ambulance fleet to 200 and each one was able to get to Sikhuphe [the original name of the airport]within one hour, how could our hospitals manage with hundreds of extra patients in one day? The closest hospital will be Good Shepherd at Siteki which is not exactly state of the art and the nearest major hospitals are in Manzini and Mbabane. They are already all on their knees, struggling to cope with our current crises of TB, HIV&AIDS.

‘Do our hospitals have a plan to cope with maybe 400 foreign people all needing bed spaces urgently? Do we have enough doctors and nurses trained in accident and emergency and most importantly do we have the necessary medicines, equipment and blood for this level of disaster? In a country that cannot even supply its own citizens with the proper drugs to prevent a child dying from rabies because of the bite of one dog - I doubt it. I doubt they could cope with fifty people never mind four hundred.

‘Sikhuphe’s business model to attract major foreign passenger carriers is already flawed because of the competition from four other regional airports within half a day’s drive - Kruger National in Mbombela (Nelspruit), Maputo in Mozambique, King Shaka in Durban and, of course, OR Tambo in Johannesburg. But what really stands out for me, as someone who has worked for businesses for a long time, is what little proper risk analysis has gone on here. Can you imagine an airline that wanted to carry rich western investors and tourists that would risk the lives of hundreds of its passengers? Can you imagine them ignoring the lack of medical systems, equipment, personnel or facilities to cope with even a relatively minor crash that required treatment of only a quarter of their passengers and staff?

‘If we adapt our medical systems to meet this need, will we take resources away from our families who are living with and dying from HIV&AIDS? So I ask a question that does not seem to have been considered in public before. How will the disaster plan for Sikhuphe affect the provision of health care for the rest of us? Will the health budget be diverted from the families of our sick and dying to allow for the imagined needs of strangers who will only stay a few hours in our country? Has Minister Xaba and his team even considered it - have they thought it through? What do they say to the foreign investors?’

The answers to Holphe’s rhetorical questions were, and remain, No. There is no plan in operation, nor is there any indication that anyone connected with the organisation of the airport or the Swazi Government is trying to create one.

Despite this obvious lack of a safety plan, Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Director General Solomon Dube told the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati III, the kingdom’s absolute monarch, that SASO was moving its operations from Botswana to Swaziland because, among other reasons, ‘there was continuous surveillance to make sure that safety precautions were always observed in the aviation industry’. 

He also said SASO wanted to ensure ‘that there was severe punishment on any person or organisation that violated the safety standards in the aviation industry’.

On closer inspection it turns out that Swaziland’s civil aviation record was last audited in 2007 by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - seven years before the new airport opened. ICAO found that Swaziland was only 16 percent compliant to the ICAO safety standards.

SASO based its decision to move to Swaziland on the results of this audit.

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