South African Airways has spent millions of rands in taxpayer funds to investigate alleged impropriety by senior executives.
Often those investigations were triggered by anonymous tip-offs, but it has now been alleged that these were sometimes authored by SAA chair Dudu Myeni herself.
This startling allegation comes as Myeni faces a high court bid by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) to have her declared a delinquent director. If Outa wins its case, Myeni will not be able to hold a directorship of any company in South Africa.
Myeni’s former board colleague and confidante Yakhe Kwinana claims she had first-hand know-ledge of how Myeni, President Jacob Zuma’s close friend, allegedly abused the airline’s whistle-blower facility.
Myeni is alleged to have collected dirt on senior staff, which she documented in a notebook. She later surreptitiously emailed these from an internet café in Sunnyside, Pretoria.
SAA did not respond to detailed questions about Myeni’s alleged abuse of the tip-off facility (see below).
SAA introduced a system to enable anonymous tip-offs to reach the company via an email address that was managed by auditing firm Deloitte.
Such tip-offs led to the suspension and eventual departure of several key executives, including former chief executive Monwabisi Kalawe and Sylvain Bosc, the airline’s chief commercial officer.
“It must have happened about six times. I raised red flags about this because it was an abuse of the system,” Kwinana, a chartered accountant who spent six years at SAA, told the Mail & Guardian.
“I told her that she was in a position of power and that she could have appointed a task team to investigate those matters. She would write the whistle-blower report and then pretend it comes from outside. She told me people will not believe it if it came from her.”
Kwinana, who served as chair of the board’s audit and risk committee, claimed that she accompanied Myeni to an internet café on at least one occasion in 2015.
She said she was interviewed about this by Outa investigators after she resigned last year. Outa is investigating several allegations of tender irregularities at the airline.
Outa spokesman Ben Theron confirmed the abuse of the tip-off system was covered in that interview.
Kwinana contacted Outa shortly after the organisation released a statement saying it intended taking legal action against her last August.
“Outa has intentions to look into all avenues it can take to hold Yakhe Kwinana and others accountable for their role in questionable or unethical dealings at SAA,” Theron said.
Kwinana told the M&G she did the best she could to act in the best interests of SAA during her time. “Later, when there were only three members on the board, my eyes were opened.”
Kwinana told Outa she accompanied Myeni to Sunnyside sometime after mid-2015.
She could not recall who the target of that tip-off was, but explained how Myeni would generally have information about an executive that she claimed to have obtained from “lower-level people”.
When the M&G asked Kwinana if she reported Myeni, she said she had told her “contact” at the treasury.
She could not name her contact because it was an unofficial interaction with someone with whom she would discuss difficult work issues.
Bosc was suspended in November 2015 for what SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said was “pursuant to a forensic investigation into various allegations received through the Deloitte tip-off hotline”.
Bosc was cleared of all charges in August. Kalawe’s suspension in 2014 was also triggered by a tip-off that initiated a forensic investigation. He challenged his suspension in the Labour Court but later abandoned the case and resigned.
Another executive who left after run-ins with Myeni is Wolf Meyer, the former chief financial officer.
Nico Bezuidenhout, a former acting chief executive, was sent back to Mango after a debacle caused by Myeni in Paris on June 16 2015.
Bezuidenhout had flown to the Paris Air Show where a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with Emirates, one of the world’s biggest airlines, was to be signed.
Myeni allegedly scuppered the R2-billion strategic partnership deal when she called Bezuidenhout in the early hours of June to tell him “uBaba” (a common reference to Zuma) didn’t want him to sign it.
Outa contends Myeni ought to have known Zuma had no authority to interfere with the signing of the deal.
The entire board, except for Myeni, had approved it, Outa claims.
Outa’s delinquency application rests on Myeni’s conduct in five transactions in which her actions violated the Companies Act and the Public Finance Management Act and in some cases was tantamount to “gross negligence”.
In a response to a parliamentary question this week, SAA said it had spent R21-million on 16 investigations during Myeni’s term. Many have not resulted in any action.
Here is SAA’s response to M&G’s 11 questions
“SAA confirms that the company was served on Thursday morning with court papers in an application by Outa and SAAPA [South African Airways Pilots Association].
“The plaintiffs are seeking a relief from the court to declare one of SAA’s nonexecutive directors and board chairperson, Ms Dudu Myeni, a delinquent director.
“SAA has been cited as one of the defendants in the papers. We are not able to immediately comment on [these] matters, we have just been served with the papers and would need time to study them to prepare and file our response with the court. As we understand it, once papers have been filed with the court and served on the other parties, that marks the commencement of a legal process and based on this, SAA would be reluctant to entertain media questions that appear to be at the heart of the application.
“The company has made announcements regarding termination of employment relationship and/or suspension from service of all executive or senior managers mentioned in your inquiry. It is not necessary to restate the position which is a matter of public record now.”