A few weeks after Malusi Gigaba took over as public enterprises minister in 2011, he called a meeting between members of the South African Airways (SAA) board and the president of Gupta-linked Jet Airways, the commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Thursday.
During her testimony before the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — former SAA board chairperson Cheryl Carolus recounted how Gigaba seemingly pushed the airline to drop the critical route between Johannesburg and Mumbai.
The cancellation of the route was allegedly set to benefit India-based Jet Airways.
Carolus recounted a “peculiar” meeting co-ordinated by Gigaba shortly after he succeeded Barbara Hogan.
Carolus could not attend the meeting but was told about it by her colleagues.
According to Carolus, upon arriving at the meeting, the board was told they were expecting others to join them.
Gigaba proceeded to wait for the unidentified people for three hours before starting the meeting, Carolus said.
“It was quite extraordinary that a whole minister would sit for three hours and just wait,” she said.
Eventually the president of Jet Airways, Naresh Goyal and another individual arrived. Carolus told the commission Gigaba let Goyal lead the meeting.
Carolus was told Goyal’s attitude as disrespectful towards the board and Gigaba failed to intervene. Carolus said he was “quite discourteous” to SAA chief executive Sizakele Mzimela and proceeded to interrogate her about why the airline had not cancelled the route.
“This carried on for a while and minister Gigaba did nothing, said nothing. And eventually deputy minister Ben Martins … he in fact berated the gentleman …” Carolus said.
Zondo asked Carolus how people outside of government could effectively order SAA to terminate the route. “Isn’t that very strange?” he asked.
“We certainly thought it was most peculiar. I mean it just didn’t make sense,” Carolus said.
Carolus recounted another strange event which occurred at the time of the meeting. A man who purported to be from Jet Airways called Mzimela’s office, telling her personal assistant there was an agreement with Jet Airways the chief executive needed to sign.
“He apparently behaved in quite an aggressive way and said this was quite urgent,” Carolus said. He was told that Mzimela was not available to sign the agreement. The personal assistant put the man through to SAA legal counsel advocate Sandra Coetzee, who told him that she did not know about the alleged deal.
“She would know. By the time it reaches the level where the CEO has to sign off, she assured him that she would have known. So therefore she didn’t think this was possible,” Carolus said.
Eventually Coetzee urged the caller to send her the documents, which he never did, Carolus said. No such agreement was signed.
Before recounting these strange interactions, Carolus told the commission about how Gigaba would publicly denigrate the SAA board, saying that they had no vision. She called Gigaba’s statements “inappropriate and unfair and annoying”.
“It really irritated us,” Carolus said.
SAA’s Mumbai route was critical to South Africa’s trade and tourism especially because the country had just entered into the BRICS partnership, Carolus said. The route was also part of the airlines strategy, which was ushered in by the new board.
In August, former ANC MP Vytie Mentor testified before the commission, saying the Gupta family offered her the position of minister of public enterprises in exchange for cancelling the SAA route to India.In a Facebook post at the time, Mentor wrote: “But they had previously asked me to become Minister of Public Enterprises when Barbara Hogan got the chop, provided that I would drop the SAA flight-route to India and give to them. I refused and so I was never made a Minister. The President was in another room when they offered me this in Saxonworld. [sic]”
Jet Airways is the airline which was fined after it chartered an airbus to transport 200 guests to a Gupta family wedding at Sun City in 2013. The Jet Airways airbus landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base without permission.