SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni’s first bust-up was with her chief executive, Vuyisile Kona, who was later suspended after just four months in the job.
Myeni again survived when Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown fired several board members in 2014 after they had filed a complaint about Myeni.
Brown herself later became embroiled in a bitter public spat with Myeni over the SAA chair’s refusal to reinstate another chief executive, Monwabisi Kalawe, whom she had suspended.
SAA, a parastatal that usually reports to the minister of public enterprises, was then moved to the treasury’s ambit.
Myeni was in the driving seat again, something that became even more clear when she unilaterally tried to scupper a life-saving swap deal with aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which sought to avoid SAA having to pay more than R600-million in pre-delivery payments after SAA had to cancel an aircraft purchase order.
Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene became the next casualty. His axing on December 9 2015 was widely linked to his refusal to give in to Myeni and authorise her push for a revised deal with Airbus.
“Dudu is untouchable. She runs SAA as if it’s her own private company and she gets away with it,” said a highly placed former insider.
Myeni is a close friend of President Jacob Zuma and serves as chairperson of his charity, the Jacob G Zuma Foundation.
“She is not going anywhere because she is protected from the top,” said the source, adding that everyone at SAA knew of her close relationship with Zuma, whom she referred to as “uBaba”.
The Sunday Times last year revealed how Myeni had blocked another potential deal with one of the world’s biggest airlines, Emirates, after executives flew to Paris to sign a deal that would have injected much-needed cash into ailing SAA.
Myeni was a no-show and phoned then-chief executive Nico Bezuidenhout at 1am to tell him that “uBaba” didn’t want them to sign the deal with Emirates.
On Wednesday, hours before it emerged that the announcement of a new SAA board was imminent, the former insider said two sets of names – one allegedly drawn up by the treasury and the other by Myeni – would make up the new 13-member board.
The delay in announcing a new board has been blamed on Zuma’s insistence that Myeni be retained. But under her leadership SAA has lurched from one crisis to another, seeing a large-scale exodus of senior executives and board members.
As a result, the 13-member SAA board has been pared down to her and one other nonexecutive board member.
Airline executives have repeatedly claimed that she does as she pleases and that even something as basic as having a meeting is never without a hidden agenda.
“She makes people wait for hours on end; it doesn’t matter who you are,” said the source, citing an incident in May when Myeni was apparently more than three hours late for a strategy meeting with SAA executives.
“She also has no regard for internal [company] procedures,” the source claimed.
SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said the airline is “not able” to comment on claims that Myeni enjoys personal protection courtesy of the State Security Agency, or whether a risk assessment was done for her to obtain this.
He said Myeni’s fee as SAA chairperson is R61 736 a month, in line with government guidelines.
The airline was in contact with the treasury as recently as Wednesday, and there is no risk of the Hong Kong debacle spilling over into other countries as SAA is engaging all stakeholders, Tlali said.
Questions directed at Myeni directly went unanswered.
She has come a long way since her days as a skills training executive in Richards Bay.
A mining industry executive who had dealings with her back then said Myeni had always displayed an air of power.
Her company conducted skills training at schools in rural communities around Richards Bay between 2003 and 2005.