Editorial: Zuma’s favourite is wrecking SAA

Wednesday’s report by the auditor general into the state of government finances brought some unexpected good news. The amount of “irregular expenditure” is down to R25.7-billion, from last year’s high of R35-billion or so, and “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” has decreased to R934-million from last year’s figure, which edged over a billion rand. These are good signs, despite the still large number of state institutions that cannot get their finances in order, especially at provincial and municipal level.

If only the auditor general could look into the financial affairs of SAA and explain to the nation (which, technically, owns the airline – the state owns it on our behalf) why it is such a long-running and apparently intractable disaster, an abyss into which the government dumps endless amounts of taxpayers’ money – talk about “fruitless and wasteful expenditure”!

The airline’s new chief executive, the seventh in four years, assured us last week that, with just a little more from the public purse, he would be able to set in motion a turnaround plan to make SAA profitable in five years’ time.

We would love to believe him. But he has a huge obstacle in the way of his vision – and that is his boss, Dudu Myeni. Read the Mail & Guardian’s look inside the chaos at the top of the company to see why Myeni is the biggest obstacle to progress at SAA (How Myeni Broke SAA). 

The jokes about hijackings, crashes and flying planes into cliffs come thick and fast when a newsroom discusses writing a headline about SAA – and there have been many recently, the past few weeks being a particularly intense period of scrutiny. So intense, in fact, that this past week SAA got an interdict served on Business Day, News24 and Moneyweb in the middle of the night, because those media had quoted from a memo SAA deems secret.

Such interdicts are usually a dead giveaway that someone has something to hide. They look like an attempt to cover up some of Myeni’s odd manipulations of a massive Airbus deal. Her machinations could end up pushing the airline over the brink and thus costing the national fiscus more billions as the state, the shareholder, tries to keep SAA aloft. Yet the one thing nobody can seem to do is get rid of the unqualified maverick at the head of SAA.

Myeni is “very close” to the president, it is repeatedly said. This is why she cannot be displaced, and why she is allowed to exercise her amateur business skills on a billion-rand state-owned company. It’s mind-boggling, really, but it’s part of a presidential pattern: as just one example, the Myeni situation echoes that of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the chief operating officer of the SABC, who, the communications minister reportedly said, is so beloved by the president that he must have the national broadcaster as his personal kingdom.

If only the president’s affections were not spread around so widely, and if only he and the government could function in something other than this monarchical way, we might see the fortunes of entities such as SAA – and South Africa – improve.

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