A SOUTH African Airways flight cabin crew on Monday threatened to throw finance deputy minister Christopher Mvunga out of the plane after he boarded the aircraft drunk and was shouting at other passengers while refusing to take instructions on how to respond during emergency.
Mvunga, who was returning to Lusaka, was taken to O.R Tambo International Airport by Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa Emmanuel Mwamba using an airport VIP protocol vehicle.
According to eye witnesses, Mvunga boarded flight SA-0066 shortly before departure at 19:05 hours and immediately demanded for a glass of wine.
“After he got on the plane, he asked one of the male flight attendants to serve him a glass of wine. He said ‘every time I get on the plane, I get a glass of wine, give me some red wine’, but the attendant told him that the service he was requesting for was only for business class and not in economy where he was seated,” witnesses narrated.
The witnesses said Mvunga argued with the cabin crew members for a while before he settled on his seat.
Another witness said when the flight attendant started explaining to him the safety procedure in case of an emergency, Mvunga demanded that the attendant talks to him in Zulu.
“He must have been seated on seat number 14A near the emergency exit, so the flight attendant approached him and started explaining the aircraft safety procedure, but he kept on interrupting him. He asked the attendant to speak to him in Zulu. He even started speaking Zulu himself and told the attendant to also speak in Zulu,” a witness narrated.
“The attendant tried maybe ten times or so, just trying to explain to him but he kept interrupting and speaking in Zulu. So at some point, the attendant threatened that he was going to inform the air marshal or security to throw him out of the plane. That is how that was settled.”
Meanwhile, Mvunga spotted Post Newspapers general manager Goliath Mungonge and started harassing him.
“When he saw me get on the plane, he started shouting out my name on top of his voice and saying I was a bad friend because I never helped him drop a story where he was accused of ordering the arrest of his girlfriend. He said a lot of things about me and The Post, but of course he has been a friend of mine for a long time, so I took most of what he was throwing at me as a joke,” said Munkonge.
“He actually came to my seat still shouting and said he was going to tell General Kanene to sort me out, so I just laughed. But for the question of whether he was drunk or not, I think you should call him. Or you can ask other passengers who were on the plane, especially the person who sat next to him. There were a lot of known people on the plane. You can even ask Kalusha Bwalya, I am sure he also saw what happened.”
Another witness said shortly before the plane took off, Mvunga noticed that works and supply permanent secretary Charles Sipanje was in the business class.
“I was on the plane yes, the [deputy] minister kept shouting at passengers he knew on the plane. He was saying the government had put in place austerity measures to reduce expenditure and that is why he was flying in economy. But when he saw PS Sipanje in business class, he got angry,” the witness narrated.
“He went to Goliath again and told him to go and call PS Sipanje. Goliath went and told PS Sipanje that his minister was calling him. When he came, Mvunga started shouting at him and asked him why he was flying in business class while he was in economy. Sipanje just told him that he would also be upgraded to business class. He tried to reason with him (Mvunga), but the [deputy] minister said PS Sipanje was going to pay for his actions. It’s like what annoyed him more was that PS Sipanje and six directors from the ministry were all flying in business class.”
Another witness narrated that the incident was embarrassing to Zambians.
“People on the plane started asking us Zambians that ‘is this the sort of ministers you have?’ It was really embarrassing to all of us,” narrated the witness.
Kalusha could not comment on the matter, saying he was in a meeting.
Sipanje’s mobile phone was unreachable by press time.
But Mvunga said he never complained to Sipanje because he was flying as a private citizen and there was nothing wrong with him flying in economy.
“I am on leave myself so I am travelling as a private citizen. So I am not aware of what is happening and when I travel on my personal business, I sit in economy so I was not… I mean, government has got guidelines on who travels where and whatever so it is not up to me to decide. It is none of my business really because there are government guidelines on when you travel business class, when you travel economy, etc,” Mvunga explained.
“I have said that we need to tone down on travel and if it is possible, which is not my will, all of us must start travelling economy, that is all.”
When informed that other passengers complained that he harassed them on the plane and that he was drunk, Mvunga said it was not possible as he went to meet President Edgar Lungu at State House immediately he landed in Lusaka.
“I was apparently very drunk on the flight? That is not possible because when I landed, I went straight to State House to go and brief the President on what he had sent me, so how would I have been drunk and go to State House? What I don’t understand is that why do you come up with all these allegations? Surely, you know what you guys are doing at the end of the day? You will make people who are competent refuse to take up government appointments because it doesn’t mean that when you are in government you become everyone’s enemy. Because you see, what you are doing is witch hunting. I don’t even move myself now, I stay inside my house because I don’t want any of these stories anymore in The Post,” Mvunga said.
This reporter then explained to Mvunga that she called him to give his side of the story and state if it was true or not.
“I am actually grateful that you have called me to clarify. So my issue is simple. As a Minister of Finance, one of my key jobs is to ensure that government cuts down on costs, if I don’t do that then I will be failing the nation. That is my opinion, not government policy, that we should minimise costs at all cost. And I am sure you heard me even say in Parliament that ‘spend government money as if it is your own money, don’t abuse’. I can fly business class if I want but I don’t need to… where there is no need. But I will fly business class if there is a senior delegation, because obviously again, you don’t want your representatives to be demeaned anyway,” Mvunga said.
He however admitted confronting Sipanje.
“I just commented with my officials to say ‘you see the minister is in economy, you guys are in business class’. So that is not to say they did anything wrong, they did not do anything wrong because they were on official duty, I was on a personal trip, I went to see my family. So the fact that I sat in economy, that is my choice,” Mvunga said.
He said he had never been drunk in public.
“Why do ministers have to be enemies of the press? It is reaching a point where you start asking yourself, do I really have a private life? Should I really be sacrificing for this? Because I lived in South Africa for 19 years, I had none of this, none of you wrote a single story. I used to come in and out of Zambia so what has changed? Because now I am a minister?” he wondered.
“You should ask yourself as a journalist, you have met me several times, when have you even seen me drunk in public? You have never seen me drunk in public. I am a professional myself, I am not just a politician. I meet people also, so I am very mindful that you have to portray a positive image so that is the reason why I don’t even go into any public places.”
He said he would never go to debrief President Lungu while drunk, unless he was mad.
“When I landed, my driver took me to State House to brief the boss on the things I had gone [to do] so how would I have gone to State House drunk? And I am conscious that I am going to meet the President, how can I do that? Unless I am mad. And you guys should understand that even me staying indoors, it is not good for the nation because I need to be out there to see what is really happening in the country. Now if we are going to lock ourselves indoors, we won’t know what is affecting you people. But we are scared because every time you’re out, there is a story. You feel like it is not your country. You actually feel much more at peace when you’re out of the country,” said Mvunga.