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SA, Zimbabwe in tit-for-tat spat

Johannesburg - As President Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean counterpart President Robert Mugabe were shaking hands and exchanging smiles on Saturday at the 37th SADC meeting in Pretoria, a major diplomatic storm was brewing on the ground between the two neighbours.
South African Airways was forced to cancel all its flights to and from Zimbabwe after the wings of an SAA flight were clipped, allegedly by Zimbabwean authorities at Harare International Airport.
Air Zimbabwe tweeted that an SAA flight from Harare to Joburg was grounded. Zimbabwean authorities said for SAA to continue to operate in that country it needed a foreign operator's permit (FOP).
SAA spokesperson Tladi Tladi confirmed that all flights to and from Zimbabwe were cancelled.
“Every effort will be made to assist all affected passengers and our recovery plans have been activated. SAA is monitoring the situation and will provide regular updates,” he said.
The move sparked widespread speculation that this manoeuvre was linked to the furore around Mugabe's wife, Grace's, alleged assaulted of a 20-year-old Joburg model, Gabriella Engels, at a Sandton hotel last weekend.
However, David Chaota, the CEO of Zimbabwe’s Civil Aviation Authority, told Independent Media that SAA flight 025 was grounded only on compliance reasons and dismissed any suggestion of a ban on South African aircraft.
He said the flight was not cleared for take-off because it wasn't carrying its FOP. "This was a normal ramp operation,” he said.
Chaota confirmed the SAA Boeing would remain at Harare airport until the issue was resolved.
He added that SAA had done “the necessary applications” and pointed out that it was not the only airline stopped from operating at Harare airport yesterday. A British Airways flight had also been denied take-off for non-compliance.
However, speculation persisted that the grounding the of the SAA flight was due to a retaliation by Zimbabwean authorities after South African authorities allegedly detained a Zimbabwean flight in OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said this week that police have issued a “red alert” at South African bordersin case Grace attempted to leave the country.
As confusion reigned over the suspected diplomatic fallout, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation referred queries to the Department of Transport.
Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi said he would be meeting all aviation entities from the department to discuss the grounding of an Air Zimbabwe aircraft on Friday, allegedly due to non-compliance.
The department said the Air Zimbabwe flight's main issue was the required FOP together with other documents, which must be on-board an aircraft at all times, and made available for inspection on request by the relevant authorities.
“As a result, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has instructed the operator not to take off until such time that there is full compliance with the applicable South African civil aviation regulations and the requisite international aviation standards as set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.”
Maswanganyi apologised for inconveniences that might have been caused to passengers.
According a source who did not want to be named, a diplomatic fallout could have a huge impact on South African companies that are operating in Zimbabwe. He said: “Zimbabwe can ask South Africa to leave or they could lose all their assets. A relation between the two countries is very important.”
He added there a lot of South African companies that buy cigarettes from Zimbabwe could also be affected.
But the Democratic Alliance was less than impressed, saying the grounding of flights appeared to be due to the diplomatic impasse over the assault charges against Grace Mugabe.
The party said that tensions between Zimbabwe and South Africa were mounting. It is also thought that an Air Zimbabwe aircraft was also grounded at OR Tambo International Airport.
The DA called on Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba to urgently intervene as “SAA fell within Gigaba’s mandate”.
“Minister Gigaba has a duty to urgently see that the operations of the already desperately compromised SAA are allowed to continue without hindrance,” the party said in a statement.
“He has to urgently and publicly” address the incidents and confirm that the SAA passengers and crew in Zimbabwe are safe and are being properly cared for.
Mugabe’s party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has rushed to Grace’s defence, saying in its Twitter account, “Comrade Doctor Grace Mugabe is a free woman, if she chooses to visit SA or stay longer that’s her choice.”
Late on Saturday, Tladi said they were still awaiting the decision by the authorities in Zimbabwe to allow them to operate.
“The situation is receiving required and urgent attention,” he said.

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