Why "God's gift" to SAA lasted

Sacked SAA chief Khaya Ngqula was looking down the barrel after the fall of his long-time protector, former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin, government resources said this week.

MPs and others familiar with the circumstances of Ngqula’s sacking said Erwin saw the SAA boss as “God’s gift” to the airline. They added that the minister had also used his influence to protect Ngqula while he was at the helm of the Industrial Development Corporation, despite his numerous fallouts with other senior staff.

One source said that, after becoming SAA CEO Ngqula, reported directly to Erwin rather than Parliament’s public enterprises committee. “In Erwin’s eyes, Ngqula could do no wrong,” he said.

Transnet sources indicated that former Transnet boss Maria Ramos had done battle with Erwin over separation of the airline from the transport parastatal, with SAA’s debts to Transnet a major bone of contention. Ramos is said to have been frustrated by the ministerial cover Ngqula enjoyed.

This week Cosatu’s transport affiliate Satawu, which represents 8 000 SAA ground staff and cabin crew, welcomed Ngqula’s sacking as a victory for the union and its members. “Workers say the reason Ngqula was not dealt with earlier is that Erwin shielded him, no matter what,” said Satawu’s national aviation coordinator Kenneth Monnana. The termination of Ngqula’s estimated R5,3-million annual contract was overdue, the union said.

Announcing the immediate termination of Ngqula’s contract this week, SAA chairperson Jakes Gerwel said the terms of the severance deal were confidential. The package has been estimated at R8-million.

Satawu said it was still awaiting the results of the KPMG investigation, based on the dossier it handed to public enterprises minister Brigitte Mabandla, on allegations against Ngqula including corruption, fraud, nepotism through procurement irregularities and conflicts of interest.

The launch of the independent probe last month coincided with Ngqula’s suspension.

In 2007 SAA was involved in a robust turnaround strategy aimed at cutting costs and improving revenues. The biggest of the initiatives was the decision to ground SAA’s fleet of B747-400 aircraft, of which SAA currently owns one and leases five. The fleet is an expensive, small sub-fleet of SAA with high costs versus the revenue generated by the aircraft.

In 2005, the year after Ngqula took over, SAA flights were disrupted when members of the United Association of South Africa launched a strike after salary negotiations deadlocked. More recently, two drug busts involving crew members at London’s Heathrow airport sullied the airline’s reputation.

Last month SAA told Parliament that it was broke and needed a cash injection. Since joining SAA in October 2004, Ngqula has earned more than R20-million.

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