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Flying into a rage – Gayton McKenzie’s Karoo airport row could land in court

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2022/08/09 Vincent Cruywagen

The owner of the small airport is demanding an apology from the new mayor, Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie, after he lashed out at her in a speech.

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A public row has erupted over a private airport in Beaufort West on the watch of new Central Karoo District mayor Gayton McKenzie. He claims the owner wants to sell the airport for R200-million and he is not prepared to cough up such a large sum.

But the owner of the Karoo Gateway Airport, Dr Bambie Heiberg, an entrepreneur and a former Springbok athlete, maintains her airport is not for sale.

At the centre of the blow-up is a letter from Heiberg demanding an apology from McKenzie, the Patriotic Alliance leader, after he made allegations about the airport, leading to negative posts on social media by Patriotic Alliance members.

McKenzie, an ex-convict, took office in April. During his celebration of 100 days in office, he said in a speech that Heiberg had bought the airport for next to nothing, not even R100,000, and now wanted to sell it for R200-million.

“I want to make it clear that the people in that airport yard were having bucket toilets. What type of a company allows people in your vicinity to use bucket toilets? We have fixed those toilets and we will fix that company,” he said.

[caption id="attachment_1348099" align="alignnone" width="720"] © Provided by Daily Maverick The Karoo Gateway Airport in Beaufort West. (Photo: Google / Mark Becker)[/caption]

“When we have a meeting with them, I want to understand how many kids they have helped here. I will reverse that deal if they can’t prove it.”

McKenzie added that the ground under the airport was filled with minerals that belonged to Beaufort West.

On 3 August, Heiberg told DM168 that the airport was not for sale and the purchase price of R100,000 mentioned by the mayor was incorrect.

The airport has existed since the early 1920s. It was used in World War 2 by Allied forces to refuel bombers.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “‘I will run for President in 2024’, Central Karoo Mayor Gayton McKenzie says after 100 days in office

Heiberg bought the small airport, formerly owned by SAA, from another private owner around 2007. Her aim, she explained to IOL Property, was to establish Beaufort West, which is 5km from the Karoo National Park, as a tourism and economic gateway to the Karoo.

She upgraded the airport with a new tarred main runway with night landing lights and air traffic control, allowing SA Red Cross Air Mercy Service aircraft to land there and transport emergency patients to central hospitals in George and Cape Town. The airport also now serves as an international pilot training academy.

DM168 has established that a consortium that has already bought an airport in Cape Town approached Heiberg with an offer to buy Karoo Gateway Airport, but she was not interested.

No apology

Since her letter requesting that McKenzie apologise or face a lawsuit, he refused to say sorry.

Instead, he posted a response on Facebook, drawing more than 1,000 comments criticising Heiberg.

His post read: “I got a letter from the lawyers for the current owners of the Karoo Gateway Airport… They want an apology or I would face a lawsuit.

[caption id="attachment_1335196" align="alignnone" width="720"] © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved Central Karoo District mayor Gayton McKenzie. (Photo: Suné Payne / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

“I shall not apologise. I am not these politicians that get bullied by businesspeople. I will fight this lawsuit with my own money and not use state resources.”

One of the comments from Patriotic Alliance members said: “My concern, how did they get that deal, was it cooked? That airport belongs to the citizens/residents of Beaufort West.”

Capture

A number of local businesspeople who spoke on condition of anonymity told DM168 they were concerned about possible capture of the local municipality, and they felt they were being sidelined by the new council.  

They also said the airport was contested because it was only 2km from an area where pockets of shale gas suitable for fracking had been found.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Central Karoo cannot celebrate clean audits while local municipalities are ailing, says municipal manager

McKenzie has gone on record declaring that fracking will take place in the Central Karoo, with or without Shell.

Bankrupt

Commenting on the storm brewing over the airport, the DA caucus leader in Beaufort West, Shaun Meyers, said the municipality was bankrupt and unable to render proper services.

“Mr McKenzie must be liable for any legal action against him from the private owner and should not let the municipality pay for any litigation costs,” he said.

The matter could end up in court if McKenzie continues to refuse to apologise.

Airport history

The first aircraft landed in Beaufort West airport in 1920 and the airport was used in World War 11 as a diversion airport for Allied forces to refuel bombers 

Doctor Bambie Heiberg took over the small airport, formerly owned by SAA from another private owner in around 2007. Activities have since expanded a lot including serving as an international pilot training academy, and expanding business, tourism and hospitality as well as emergency services.

In 2010, aircraft landed at night. The initiative was driven by the South African Red Cross Emergency Services, SA Air Force, police and national emergency services frequently using the airport.

An extensive and superb, state-of-the-art AIFA International Flight Academy has been built. In December 2014 the airport's airfield was launched as the new landing place for Western Cape Government’s EMS helicopters.

The airport has been eyed for years as a potential catalyst for tourism and business in the poorly-resourced region. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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