Our national carrier could fly high if it wasn’t thwarted constantly by dubious agendas at the top, writes Wayne Duvenage
One does not have to look far to realise that SAA’s plight stems from a lack of good, focused and energised leadership that can take the brand and all its staff to new heights.
Boasting more than 80 years in the sky, the airline is recognised across all continents as its colourful tail pronounces its national identity.
But back home, SAA symbolises an albatross to taxpayers, who fork out roughly R1 billion each year to keep it aloft.
It is also a blight and embarrassment to the nation when the national carrier is more often than not in the news for the wrong reasons. Headline after headline, month after month, we hear of questionable enrichment deals entered into with middlemen – Airbus Lease swaps and BnP Capital, to name just two – along with resignations by board members and senior management.
These are not the hallmarks of an airline – or any business, for that matter – that has every opportunity to attain significant positive news airtime.
Last week, former chief commercial officer Sylvain Bosc – who was suspended in November – was cleared of all charges, including exaggerating certain fare prices on certain flight routes, that were presented by SAA management to aid in his dismissal.
This is a classic case of the airline losing an excellent and experienced executive manager for no valid reason, other than his commitment to achieve the best outcomes for SAA, while certain staffers appeared to have a different view and agenda.
Normally, a board would do everything possible to retain Bosc’s services, especially if he was cleared of any wrongdoing – unless, of course, he was getting in the way of its antics.
I have no doubt the same will come of the case against former group treasurer for SAA Cynthia Stimpel, who was recently suspended for asking too many questions.
And the list goes on: former chief financial officer Wolf Meyer; Nico Bezuidenhout, a former acting CEO of the airline; former chief procurement officer Dr Masimba Dahwa; and suspended head of human resources Thuli Mpshe.
These are just a few good people lost to the airline, for reasons ranging from resignation – because of discomfort with the current executive leadership – to suspension and dismissal over dubious or trumped-up charges.
Besides the purging of good management, there is an alarming sense of loss of control as people in various leadership roles take advantage of these circumstances. They do so by circumventing good governance and allowing contracts to be concluded under conditions of poor negotiation and weak judgement, some of which speaks not only to maladministration but also to corruption.
If SAA was managed by a team that was strong on tackling mediocrity and ousting managers who were irrational in their appointment of suppliers and who entered into dubious agreements, it would be a far more successful entity.
It would certainly not have attracted a report from forensic accountants EY at the end of last year, which found that 60% of the 48 top procurement contracts were improperly negotiated, poorly contracted or weakly managed – adding to the airline’s failing operations.
There is no doubt that SAA’s fortunes will improve this year, but it will be as a fortuitous result of low oil prices and a weak rand attracting a higher number of visitors to South Africa – as opposed to sound judgement and inspirational leadership at SAA.
Airlines require people with credible management experience, preferably from within the industry, to be successful and compete in this cut-throat sector.
We are not even asking for SAA to make a profit. As a state-owned entity, a break-even situation through efficient processes would do just fine, thank you. Looking at the top echelons of SAA’s leadership today, I get no sense of the energy, passion, internal corruption fighting and engaging management required to make SAA the successful airline it has every potential to be.
Duvenage is chairperson of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse