State capture: 'I didn't know what I got myself into when I joined SAA'

20 June 2019 - 06:30 By Amil Umraw
The state capture inquiry heard on Wednesday how a culture of fear engulfed South African Airways under former chair Dudu Myeni.
The state capture inquiry heard on Wednesday how a culture of fear engulfed South African Airways under former chair Dudu Myeni.
Image: AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

The state capture inquiry heard on Wednesday how a culture of fear engulfed South African Airways (SAA) under Dudu Myeni and how the airline's little sister, SA Express (SAX), was used by senior politicians to siphon money from the North West government.

Two witnesses took the hot seat at the commission: former SAA treasurer Phumeza Nhantsi and SAX security manager Timothy Ngwenya.

While Nhantsi's evidence brings to a close the commission's first aspect of evidence relating to the capture of South Africa's aviation sector, SAA's controversial R15bn capital restructuring project, Ngwenya's testimony brings into focus its second aspect: a crooked arrangement entered into with SA Express by the North West's transport department in order to fly routes to Pilanesberg and Mafikeng airports.

The agreement was allegedly envisaged to move R400m out of the North West government into SA Express. The commission heard that R97m of that total amount was paid out of the North West government and siphoned off through a "detailed scheme of money laundering".

Ngwenya told the commission that he was approached in 2016 by Babadi Tlatsana, the boss of Koreneka Trading and Projects, which provides ground handling services, who had evidence of corruption in a deal she had entered into with SAX.

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The pair met on June 24 2016. Recalling their conversation, Ngwenya said Tlatsana told him she was referred to SAX's commercial manager Brian van Wyk after she tabled a plan to the North West government to revive two airports in the province, Mafikeng and Pilanesberg.

Her company was to provide ground handling services to SAA at both sites.

"She said he [Van Wyk] confirmed to her that she stood a chance of getting the job because she is a woman and is from North West. He told her the only disadvantage was that she was the sole owner. He advised her to get somebody to partner with," recalled Ngwenya.

Van Wyk allegedly suggested two prospective partners to join Tlatsana's business, which she accepted. However, the pair allegedly took over the running of her company.

Tlatsana's company went on to receive R31m from SAX and R20m from the North West transport department for its services. The deal never went to tender.

After Tlatsana's relationship with Van Wyk soured, she handed over documentary evidence and audio recordings detailing the entire scheme to Ngwenya.

Implicated in the evidence is Van Wyk, former SAX CEO Inati Ntshanga, former public enterprises minister Lynne Brown, former transport minister Dipuo Peters and former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo.

The commission will hear the evidence directly when Tlatsana testifies.

Ngwenya said he used Tlatsana's evidence to launch an investigation and eventually compiled a report proving widescale corruption in the deal.

Before Ngwenya took the stand, Nhantsi described to the commission a culture of fear and political interference that existed at SAA under the chairmanship of Dudu Myeni, saying "pressure" was put on senior staff to carry out instructions they were uncomfortable with.

I realised that the work is doable but there are these political things and undue pressure coming especially from the board.
Phumeza Nhantsi

Nhantsi, who was concluding her testimony during her second day on the stand, said staff were given instructions to do "certain things that are unlawful" by Myeni and members of her board.

"I also came to the commission for South Africa to understand the pressure that was mounting on us. Whilst we were under pressure, I did not act negligently by just accepting what the chair [Myeni] was saying and doing it," she said.  

"When I joined SAA, I was very excited to be part of the team that will turn around the company. I believed that I do have the skills and the compentency … I realised that the work is doable but there are these political things and undue pressure coming especially from the board."

She said staff were suspended for not following Myeni's instructions. "There were people who were suspended because they said no to decisions and instructions from the chair.

"As the pressure was mounting, I even one day told my husband that I don't know what I got myself into when I joined SAA. You are given an instruction to do this and certain things are not lawful," she told the commission.  

The commission will continue to hear evidence on the SAX deal on Thursday.


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