Nicky Oppenheimer says he is puzzled by state arms maker Denel’s sudden about-turn in support for his aviation company Fireblade’s plans for a luxury international terminal at OR Tambo airport.
"They went from being extremely supportive landlords to extremely obstructive landlords," he said this week. "I have no idea why."
Fireblade opened its terminal for domestic flights at the airport’s Denel precinct in 2014.
But in October last year Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba rejected its application to offer on-site international customs and immigration services, essential for the facility’s commercial viability.
The company has approached the courts to review Gigaba’s decision. It said the minister had told Fireblade representatives, including Oppenheimer, in January 2016 that he had signed a letter of approval for the project.
This is reflected in minutes of this meeting compiled by Fireblade and forwarded to Gigaba’s office and a letter Oppenheimer sent him the following day.
These were never commented on or disputed before.
"We want a court to decide whether [Gigaba] did make a decision or not. He has to argue I misheard him or misinterpreted the facts," said Oppenheimer.
Fireblade says Gigaba changed his mind after receiving a letter from Denel chairman Daniel Mantsha days after the meeting. The letter said Gigaba should ignore a letter of endorsement he had received weeks earlier from Denel’s acting CEO, Zwelakhe Ntshepe.
Oppenheimer said Denel and Airports Company SA had always been great enthusiasts of the project and he could not fathom the state arms maker’s change of heart.
However, he planned to file a confirmatory affidavit in support of Fireblade director Robbie Irons, who said in his sworn statement that the Gupta family had used its influence over Denel to induce Gigaba to reject their application.
Irons related how a Gupta pilot had been asked to relay a message to him from the Guptas that Fireblade needed a new black empowerment partner approved by the Saxonwold family if it wanted Gigaba’s approval. According to another pilot, when this ploy failed the Guptas induced Denel to block Gigaba’s approval, Irons said.
This week Denel filed answering papers echoing Gigaba’s strenuous denials last month that the Guptas had influenced the decision to reject Fireblade’s application.