That, in a nutshell, is the main conclusion of the anti-corruption commission headed by Judge Raymond Zondo. It was set up in 2017 to shed light on the various incidents of alleged
corruption in South Africa during the term of former President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018), involving SAA, other suspects belonging to the country’s aviation industry, and financial
The dimension of state-initiated looting of SAA and other firms involved in criminal action is documented in a report numbering over 400 pages. It explains among other reasons (Covid-19), why SAA bit the dust in mid-2020 when filing for insolvency.
To start with, here are the bold facts: The Zondo Commission’s investigations lasted more than 3 years. Some 320 witnesses were heard and their testimonies recorded on 1.7 million pages. Exactly 1,438 individuals and representatives of companies appeared before the Commission and were interrogated. Among them were defendants and witnesses. The report focuses on corrupt contract tenders and political kickbacks in relation to South African Airways, its different business units, and the state revenue agency. The investigations will be continued, and their findings documented in 2 additional reports.
According to the Zondo Commission, a mafia-like ring out for personal enrichment through the financial squeezing of SAA and some other victims, was formed from 2012 onward. Pulling the strings behind the curtain was South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma. His most important stooges in the rally for money and influence were Dudu Myeni, SAA's former chairperson, and Yakhe Kwinana, former head of South African Airways Technical (SAAT). Particularly Ms. Myeni made a series of decisions, in collusion with Zuma or with his consent, to the detriment of the national carrier, but to her own benefit and that of the Zuma Foundation. This was confirmed by numerous witnesses and is meticulously described in the Zondo report.
Here are some examples outlined in the protocol:
Rather than purchasing ten A320-200 jetliners from Airbus as originally planned, cash-stripped SAA called the deal off and instead tried to lease five aircraft from the European plane maker. SAA’s executive management worked for months on a “crucial” and “very beneficial” solution, which was approved by the national treasury, and only required SAA board sign-off, writes Business Insider SA. However, “Ms. Myeni simply failed to meet the deadline and did not ratify the deal,” is stated in the Zondo report. Instead, she wrote a letter to the president of Airbus, trying to change the terms of the agreed conditions, and to introduce a third-party company to handle the leasing, for reasons she has never satisfactorily explained. As in other cases, all SAA senior executives who opposed Ms. Myeni’s intervention to change the terms of the transaction were ousted.
Involving a third-party last-minute before concluding a deal is Myeni's typical pattern, as both she personally and the Zuma regime benefited from kickbacks. The involved company then recovered the funds spent for bribes from SAA, with the blessing of SAA’s chairperson, Dudu Myeni.
The Emirates disaster
It is therefore no surprise that, in the Zondo report, Ms. Myeni is literally described as a “criminal offender in her role as SAA director.” One cause, among others, was the proposed code-share agreement with Emirates. If it would have come to fruition, it would have annually injected R170 million into SAA's coffers (EUR 9.7 million). However, Ms. Myeni dropped the deal which was almost ready to be inked, by canceling various appointments in Dubai and Johannesburg. Asked by the investigators for her reasons for doing so, she told the commission that head of state Zuma had initiated the withdrawal because it would ruin the relationship with other carriers.
The Zondo Commission, however, suspects that Emirates was unwilling to pay bribes to the Zuma Foundation, or at least not the amount demanded. According to Judge Zondo, it is suspicious that every member of the SAA management who negotiated the Emirates codeshare issue, was fired right after the deal was called off or preferred to resign.
The LSG Skychefs issue
Following a tender, the former Lufthansa subsidiary was told that it had been awarded a contract to offer its services at SAA lounges frequented by travelers at South African International Airports. The decision was preceded by repeated complaints from passengers about the rather poor selection of food and drinks offered by SAA subsidiary, Air Chefs, to the airline's guests as well as users of partner airlines. However, just days after Skychefs was told that it had won the bid, Ms. Myeni intervened and demanded that the deal be scrapped. In Judge Zondo's view, this behavior also points to corruption, because the Myeni board “never attempted to improve Air Chef's services.” This has been testified by credible witnesses and is evidenced through various payments that have been made. Their respective amounts are recorded in the report.
Court rulings are not expected quickly
Wrapping things up it can be said that the basic findings of the Zondo Commission do not come as a surprise. However, the dimension of corruption and the audacity of the actors was not expected in this blatant form by media and the broad public. The commission's findings could be “a first step towards repairing South Africa’s democracy”, titles author Linda Gradstein in VOANews.
The report is only the first. Two more are to come following further investigations by the Zondo Commission. The focus will be on the role of Jacob Zuma and his entourage, and how they presumably systematically used SAA to enrich themselves. It will take another 2 or 3 years before the results are presented and South African courts render the first judgements, local observers expect.
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