Oliver Matthews says it hasn’t escaped the attention of locals that President Emmerson Mnangagwa himself doesn’t fly Air Zimbabwe.
There were anxious moments on Sunday evening after news broke that an Air Zimbabwe plane was spotted with “an engine on fire” after taking off from OR Tambo airport.
To add to the drama, it was reported that the plane – a Boeing 767 – was too heavily laden with fuel to return to the airport and would instead continue on its perilous journey to Harare.
The whole episode conjured up images of the scene from Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, where King Julien’s battered old plane is launched into the air with black smoke pouring from the port engine.
But such comparisons would be unfair – Air Zimbabwe has an unblemished safety record in its 39-year history.
Its pilots, unlike the penguin pilots in the Madagascar film, have a reputation for excellence. So much so that Deputy Agriculture Minister Vangelis Haritatos even offered to give one Air Zimbabwe captain a farm when he calmly piloted the plane to Harare after it suffered a dramatic bird strike on Friday evening in Bulawayo (it was an eventful weekend).
However, the Sunday incident appears to have been more serious than initially thought. Unconfirmed reports say engineers have had to replace the damaged engine, and flights are only due to resume on Thursday.
The unnerving episode, filmed by one passenger, is not going to boost confidence in Air Zim, already derided by many locals as “Scare Zim”.
Critics say the airline, which had a healthy stable of planes at independence but is now down to the stricken 767, is a potential death trap. That’s a name they also give to notoriously ill-equipped and poorly-stocked state hospitals, which are avoided by some top government officials who fly abroad for their own hospital treatment.
It all comes down to mismanagement, one former Air Zimbabwe pilot told me. He said the 20-something-year-old 767 is being overused on the airline’s short regional and domestic routes, when in fact it’s designed for long-haul flights with regular maintenance checks. He compared it to taking a fancy Mercedes-Benz limousine on trips to the rural areas.
It hasn’t escaped the attention of locals that President Emmerson Mnangagwa himself doesn’t fly Air Zimbabwe. Instead, he uses a luxury jet brought all the way from the United Arab Emirates. He says the plane is lent to him by the Crown prince of Abu Dhabi “whenever I want to travel”. Mnangagwa used the plane to travel to Bulawayo on Friday, a 40-minute flight.
But Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi confirmed to one local newspaper what many have long suspected: that Mnangagwa doesn’t fly on the national flag carrier because it’s “unsafe for the presidium”.
On social media Zimbabweans are justifiably outraged, saying if the airline isn’t safe for the president, it isn’t safe for anyone.
Oliver Matthews is a freelance reporter based in Zimbabwe.