Former public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba on Monday challenged former SAA CEO Sizakele Mzimela’s testimony to the Zondo commission that he tacitly allowed Gupta-linked Jet Airways to place undue pressure on the national carrier to cancel its Mumbai route.
Gigaba was confronted with Mzimela’s account of how he had remained silent when Jet chairman Naresh Goyal “arrogantly” told SAA it should scrap its Mumbai-Johannesburg route because his company offered a superior service.
He conceded: “The man was arrogant.”
But he said he was not aware that while Goyal kept him and the board waiting — according to Mzimela for some two hours — to arrive for the meeting on 10 January 2011, a Jet employee had called SAA’s legal adviser and demanded to know why SAA had not yet signed an agreement submitted to it earlier.
Gigaba said he saw no reason to intervene in the meeting to cut Goyal short: firstly, this was not his style and, secondly, then deputy minister of public enterprises Ben Martins did so.
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond asked why, when Gigaba was chairing the meeting, he allowed somebody to behave in an unacceptable manner until his deputy could tolerate it no longer.
“I am not accustomed to interjecting people when they are talking, chairperson, and it was not my way of chairing meetings,” he replied.
“But my deputy spoke. If the deputy minister intervenes and speaks he is also speaking on my behalf.”
Gigaba said the outcome of the meeting was that he instructed SAA to seek to negotiate a win-win agreement with Jet, because both airlines were at this point operating the route at a loss, not that it should stop flying to Mumbai from Johannesburg.
According to Mzimela, a similar scenario played out at a subsequent meeting in April in which the airline informed Gigaba that a partnership with Jet was not possible, partly because it could not be seen as a trustworthy partner because as it had failed to settle debt it owed SAA.
At the follow-up meeting, Gigaba allegedly remained impassive as his special adviser, Siyabongo Mahlunga, berated her for trying to convey that it was not feasible to reach an accord with Jet, and expressed frustration at executives who failed to grasp “national importance” and the urgency of getting things done.
“Mr Mahlangu was hearing none of it, he continued his rant and then became personal,” evidence leader Anton Myburgh quoted from Mzimela’s affidavit.
Again, she said, Gigaba “remained silent throughout” and never called his adviser to order.
Mzimela said she lost her temper, but Mahlangu was undeterred and accused SAA, and her in particular, of sabotaging a deal with Jet.
Zondo asked Gigaba: “Mr Mahlangu was saying in your presence Ms Mzimela and SAA was sabotaging … This was quite something serious: Would you agree?”
Gigaba said it was serious but he “did not take it seriously”, because it was Mahlangu’s personal opinion, and that any decision rested with him as the minister.
“What happens going forward is then, based on my appreciation and advice I have received from SAA; anything else was just an opinion from the individual who was talking and not relevant, because the decision rested with the minister.”
Myburgh recalled that Mzimela’s evidence was that, after the meeting, Mahlangu apologised to her and said he had merely been following instructions. Gigaba flatly denied that his adviser had acted at his behest.
Eventually, in 2015, SAA scrapped its Mumbai route. Gigaba pointed out that by this time he no longer served as public enterprises minister.
Mzimela submitted in her evidence that during Gigaba’s tenure the line between the shareholder and the board became blurred. She resigned in 2012, after two-thirds of the board had quit amid questions about the motives of the department.
Gigaba said it was their opinion that the relationship had soured, but said it was not true that he had reproached them for being “unpatriotic”.
During his testimony on Monday at the state-capture inquiry, Gigaba also continued to refute testimony by his estranged wife that Ajay Gupta had served as his unofficial adviser.