CHINESE President Xi Jinping came face to face with Zimbabwe’s collapsing services, after his plane was delayed by about 15 minutes at Harare International Airport due to malfunctioning equipment.
A towable aircraft passenger staircase, operated by the National Handling Services (NHS), developed a technical fault and remained stuck to Xi’s Air China Boeing 747-400 plane, in an embarrassing episode for his host President Robert Mugabe.
To avoid further embarrassment, NHS staff operating the machine called for reinforcement from their workmates and physically pushed the stair off the plane as Mugabe watched helplessly.
First Lady Grace Mugabe, an entourage of Cabinet ministers, government officials, services chiefs and several Chinese officials watched in disbelief.
The incident, at midday, happened as Xi rounded up his maiden two-day State visit to Zimbabwe, where he oversaw the signing of numerous deals with both government and the private sector.’
Harare International Airport manager, Priscilla Mawire, who seemed disturbed by the incident, refused to comment, referring all questions to NHS.
“For now, we cannot comment. You can go to the NHS general manager,” she said.
Efforts to get a comment from NHS were fruitless, as the responsible authorities were reportedly away in Victoria Falls on business.
Sources at the airport said the stair has four stabilisers, which should enable it to move once passengers board a plane.
“Three stabilisers responded, but the fourth one developed a challenge. We had to call other NHS staff to push it so that the plane moved uninterrupted. That was embarrassing, but there was nothing we could do,” a senior official, who refused to be named, said.
“Our equipment is always audited by other foreign airplanes and the Chinese officials were here five days ago and they said it was OK. That is the procedure. “We are also internationally certified through the IATA [International Air Transport Association] safety audit for ground operations,” the source, who added that it was rare to have such a problem, said.
Meanwhile, there seemed to be miscommunication between the guard of honour and Chinese officials, who tried to disperse the assembly and pave way for the take-off of the Air China plane.
Unlike on Tuesday, where Xi was given a hero’s welcome with thousands of bussed Zanu PF supporters thronging the streets to welcome him, there were no cheering ruling party supporters on the streets or even at the airport.
Before leaving for South Africa, where he will be joined again by Mugabe for the sixth Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, Xi hailed his country’s relationship with Zimbabwe. He said China was committed to working with Zimbabwe as shown by the signing of “mega” deals between the two countries.
Mugabe echoed similar sentiments, saying the longstanding relationship between the two countries had always been yielding positive results.