State capture: How a small meat & veg handler scored an airport contract worth millions

21 June 2019 - 19:20 By Amil Umraw
Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.
Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.
Image: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele

The state capture inquiry on Friday heard how a small transportation company in North West was illegally handed a massive contract by SA Express to manage ground handling services at the Mafikeng and Pilanesberg airports.

The company, Koroneka Trading and Projects, was run by a local Mafikeng woman, Babadi Tlatsana, who transported meat and vegetables to local hospitals in Mafikeng.

She used one vehicle and employed only a driver and a man who loaded the food items into the vehicle. But only a few months after she proposed a plan to revitalise the province's two airports, millions would begin flowing into her bank account.

Tlatsana, who testified at the commission on Friday, described how she found herself in the middle of an elaborate scheme to siphon money out of the North West government's coffers and into SA Express as well as the bank accounts of other connected individuals.

Tlatsana started by recalling events soon after the 2014 general elections concluded when then newly elected premier Supra Mahumapelo addressed public meetings where he spoke of the renewing of business in the province.  

"When he entered office, he spoke about 'saamwerk, saamtrek 'and the repositioning, rebranding and renewing of the province," she said.

Her idea was to bring new customers to the Mafikeng and Pilanesberg airports by making it easier for citizens to book flights. She told the commission she envisaged her company would market these airports and manage ground staff at both sites.

After her idea was turned down by South African Airways, she said she approached SA Express and was transferred to its commercial manager, Brian Van Wyk. He is alleged, according to other testimonies already presented at the commission, to be one of the masterminds behind the scandal.  

"The idea was just to do the marketing...and the administration of the flights. I didn’t know about this thing of ground handling. To me it was just to get an airline operational at the airports. The proposal was for the flights to come in, and to do the administration of the passengers, and processing of passengers," Tlatsana said.  

After submitting a proposal to Van Wyk, she said he contacted her to say she was selected as a "preferred bidder" - even though she did not tender for the work. However, according to her, Van Wyk had a set of requirements for her to get the job.

Van Wyk, she claimed, wanted her to appoint three people as partners in her business: Catherine Joyce Phiri, Victor Thabeng and David Kalisilira.

"The reason was this project was going to be very huge and I have to bring these people into the company so they can be of assistance," she said.

"I believed Van Wyk with my life that a person of his calibre was going out of his way to make Koroneka successful."

Because of this trust she apparently had in him, she did not question how she got the deal without tendering for the job or why she had to open a separate bank account on his instruction, and signed a contract without reading the documentation.

Babadi Tlatsana, who ran a small company before scoring a big airport deal which she later discovered was part of a state capture exercise.
Babadi Tlatsana, who ran a small company before scoring a big airport deal which she later discovered was part of a state capture exercise.
Image: Amil Umraw
I believed Van Wyk with my life that a person of his calibre was going out of his way to make Koroneka successful.
Babadi Tlatsana

Tlatsana said she met Van Wyk in April 2015 to sign a contract between Koroneka and SAX.

"Van Wyk told me that what is entailed in the contract is ground handling, to get the staff that will be bringing in bags from people, marshals directing the flight, cleaning and gardening," she said.  

She did not question the contents of the contract or how much she would be paid for the job.  She said she just knew that the project was “huge”.

"I was just so excited that we got this work and I signed the contract," she said.  

Work commenced on the project on May 1 2015 at Pilanesberg and September 1 2015 at Mafikeng.

Soon after, millions would flow in and out of her business account - all of which were allegedly controlled by Kalisilira who she said was appointed as the company's accountant.

Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, who chairs the commission, said that on a reading of her testimony, it would appear that she was "taken advantage of".

The commission previously heard how the North West's department of community safety and transport management had underhandedly struck a deal with SA Express to have the airline operate local routes to and from each airport. The deal, which is riddled with allegations of corruption and procurement irregularities, was allegedly envisaged to move up to R400m out of the North West government and into SA Express.

The commission believes R97m of that total amount was siphoned off to various entities through a "detailed scheme of money laundering".

Tlatsana's evidence will continue, and is expected to shed light on the flow of money through her business, when the commission continues on Saturday.