The crisis at South African Airways (SAA) is fast reaching boiling point with debt repayments totaling R6.9 billion due this Saturday, 30 September. Despite this urgent situation, National Treasury has yet to reveal where this enormous amount of money will come from.
Our national carrier has become a bottomless pit into which government continues to pour precious public resources that should be spent on lifting 30 million South Africans out of poverty. It is hard to believe that any government hoping to be re-elected would take money from the poor to subsidize travel for the rich.
SAA’s fortunes will not change if we continue done the current tried, tested and failed path. For almost two decades, the airline has relied on government bailouts and guarantees for its survival. The cumulative total of bailouts since 1999 is R14.4 billion, and National Treasury is currently trying to source another R10 billion for the airline in the next 48 hours. Government has already extended R19.1 billion in guarantees – meaning that nearly R35 billion of ordinary South Africans’ hard-earned money has been dedicated to keeping SAA in ‘business’.
In addition to these bailouts and guarantees, and under the control of Board Chairperson Dudu Myeni, SAA has made a cumulative loss of R15.7 billion over the past five years. The DA has been clear and unwavering in our contention that Ms Myeni is both unfit and unsuitable to be at the helm. It is clear for all to see that this government continues to retain and protect Myeni in her position, in spite of this cash hemorrhage, because of her close political affiliations, including President Zuma himself.
The R10 billion that government is saying SAA needs will only pay off the bank loans of R 6.9 billion due by the 30th of September, the Standard Charted bail out of R2.2 billion at the end of June 2017, and R750 million to pay suppliers who were not fully paid in July and August 2017. The R10 billion will not provide working capital to fund the losses that National Treasury and the latest turn-around plan indicate will continue for the next two years. This requires a further R13 billion in cash injections or what National Treasury euphemistically refer to as “re-capitalization”.
The reality is that SAA is insolvent and bankrupt. It must be stabilized, and sold off as soon as practically possible.
Recovery plans have followed turnaround strategies, all yielding further losses. It is clear that national government is hell-bent on hanging onto the beleaguered airline – no matter the cost to the country and its people. SAA is not a strategic state-owned asset and it plays no role in the developmental agenda of government. On the contrary, over the last two decades it has cost our country dearly and delivered no tangible benefits to ordinary South Africans.
Getting to the bottom of the problem
Despite Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s best efforts, rumours of an impending raid on the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) refuse to go away. With just 48 hours to go before the R6.9 billion is due, we still do not know how Minister Gigaba intends to fund the bailout, and where additional funds will be found to pay suppliers.
The PIC, which administers the pensions of teachers, nurses, police officers and other public servants, has confirmed that they were approached for a R6 billion bailout for SAA. That our government would even consider risking pension funds of public servants is deplorable.
Significantly, the PIC has serious reservations about SAA’s suitability for a loan. At the media briefing on the 26th of September, PIC CEO, Dan Matjila, revealed that a due diligence investigation had been conducted into SAA. This report found SAA to be below the minimum investment standards required by the PIC. Matjila conceded that the outcome was “not favourable” in terms of “the minimum requirements of our client mandate”.
The contents of this report may be the clearest indication yet of the true state of SAA and the DA believes the report should be released for public scrutiny. We will therefore be submitting an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to information Act (PAIA) to obtain a copy of the SAA due diligence report conducted by the PIC.
Holding Myeni and Gigaba accountable
The Constitution sets out the basic values and principles of public administration in Section 195, which states that:
“Public Administration must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution, including … [e]fficient, economic and effective use of resources … The above principles apply to … Public Enterprises.”
The national carrier is deemed a public entity in terms of Schedule 2 of the Public Finance Management Act (No. 1 of 1999) and in terms of the South African Airways Act (No. 5 of 2007). Accordingly, SAA is subject to this section.
Sadly, the management of SAA has become the very antithesis of the requirements set out in the Constitution. It is our belief that Malusi Gigaba and Dudu Myeni, in their respective official capacities, have breached Section 195 of the Constitution by not acting in accordance the principals established therein.
Therefore, the DA will be writing to the Public Protector, Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane, requesting an investigation into this matter. Specifically, the Public Protector must investigate the role played by Ms Myeni in the institutional decay and poor governance of SAA, since 2009, and Mr Gigaba in his former and current role as minister of Public Enterprises and Finance, respectively. Myeni and Gigaba’s careers are intimately entwined with SAA’s demise and they must not be allowed to escape accountability.
The way forward for SAA
SAA can be profitable and a company worthy of being called South African. However, immediate and urgent action is required.
The DA’s solution to the SAA crisis would consist of the following interventions:
- Remove Dudu Myeni from the board entirely and ensure that the board is made up of independent individuals with suitable aviation and business experience;
- Initiate business rescue proceedings for SAA in terms of Chapter 6 of the Companies Act (No. 71 of 2008). This will temporarily place SAA in the hands of a capable business rescue practitioner charged with returning the entity to a healthy financial position. This will have to include:
- The removal of political interference both in strategy and in the employment of skilled and experienced management and staff;
- Aggressively pursuing profitable routes, some of which were foolishly abandoned over recent years;
- Renegotiating supply contracts, particularly major supplies such as jet fuel on the basis of best price for the required service quality;
- Adjustments to employee compliment numbers to bring the airline in line with international staffing norms.
- Release government’s stranglehold over SAA by finding a buyer for SAA immediately. This ought to include an employee share scheme, making a portion of shares available to SAA employees in order to empower them and give them a real stake in the company’s future successes.
These initiatives will not only bring much needed public accountability to the airline’s governance, but will go a long way to making SAA profitable again. We thus call on Minister Gigaba to place SAA under business rescue before the next bailout payment deadline of 30 September.
South Africans cannot continue to fund a defunct and failing national carrier. In truth, the imminent R10 billion bailout will only be a short term solution and will not fix the underlying issues at SAA. It is time for urgent and immediate interventions that seek to stabilize, professionalize and sell off SAA.