SAA chief's lack of airline experience 'could be an asset'

SAA announced that Monwabisi Kalawe would leave his job at a food and beverage corporation to take up the mantle at the embattled state-run airline. (Gallo)

SAA announced that Monwabisi Kalawe would leave his job at a food and beverage corporation to take up the mantle at the embattled state-run airline. (Gallo)

SAA announced last Friday that Kalawe would leave his position as managing director of food and beverage corporation Compass Group to take up the mantle at the embattled state-run airline.

An electrical engineer by trade, Kalawe graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and spent four years at Eskom as a distribution manager. He also managed one of Nestlé's plants, was chief operating officer of Total Facilities Management Company and chief executive of Denel. Kalawe also worked for Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) for six years, directing Cape Town International Airport.

But, according to the chief executive of airline company Comair, Erik Venter, the current state of SAA demands a leader with airline experience, something Kalawe lacks.
"Running an airport is different from running an airline, like running a petrol station is different from running a car factory," said Venter. "If SAA was in a healthy condition, then he might succeed, but in its current state, SAA requires a chief executive with airline expertise."

Venter said Kalawe would be overly reliant on the current acting chief executive, Nico Bezuidenhout, who will return to his position as chief executive of sister company Mango Airlines when Kalawe arrives. Bezuidenhout was instrumental in drafting a 20-year-long turnaround strategy for SAA, a strategy which Kalawe will now be expected to implement.

But Kalawe's appointment was not based exclusively on whether or not he had airline experience, said Tlali Tlali, SAA's executive of corporate affairs. "All relevant factors were taken into account. Those who prejudge him have a shallow understanding of what management is about." And, according to Guy Leitch, editor of SA Flyer magazine, Kalawe's lack of industry experience could be a virtue not a vice.

"The previous chief executives were tainted by it," he said. "SAA is a snake pit of politics. Monwabisi's almost entire challenge is to be an honest manager and keep his airline above the damaging political agendas which have so hurt it in the past."

Conflicting stakeholder interests
Aviation analyst Linden Birns said Kalawe's experience at state-owned companies placed him in the perfect position to do just that. The myriad conflicting stakeholder interests faced by SAA needed to be aligned, said Birns.

Kalawe will probably oversee the consolidation of SAA, SA Express and Mango under one holding company. A report in Business Day said a leaked document from SAA had outlined this intention.

While the airline said it could not confirm the report before the document was presented to Cabinet in May, Tlali said it "would be unimaginable not to expect the strategy to refer to possible future long-term relations with Mango and SA Express".

The move is seen as a bid to cut costs and share expenses across the entities.

Leitch said doing so could save 2 000 jobs, and Kalawe had other opportunities to cut the fat, as "about 15% of the staff complement at SAA is deadwood".

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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