ASS

Financial Mail - - COVER STORY -

Nearly three years ago, North West premier Supra Mahumapelo proudly her­alded the re­open­ing of Mahikeng Air­port — and the re­sump­tion of flights be­tween the air­port and Jo­han­nes­burg — as a ma­jor step in re­vi­tal­is­ing his prov­ince’s econ­omy. Mahumapelo re­vealed that SA Ex­press, the small sta­te­owned air­line set up in 1994 to “of­fer con­nec­tiv­ity to sec­ondary and main air­ports”, would be fly­ing be­tween North West’s cap­i­tal, Mahikeng, and two des­ti­na­tions — Joburg’s OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional and Pi­lanes­berg — three times a week.

“We said that we will make this prac­ti­cal and I am very happy that SA Ex­press and all stake­hold­ers came to the party to make this a re­al­ity in line with our saamtrek, saamw­erk [pull to­gether, work to­gether] phi­los­o­phy,” Mahumapelo said.

That was in 2015, long be­fore images of North West in flames dom­i­nated tele­vi­sion screens and news­pa­per head­lines, and an­gry res­i­dents called on Mahumapelo to “stop mak­ing ex­cuses and step down”.

Right now, the break­ing point is that Mahumapelo’s son Supra jnr scored a R1m bur­sary from state-owned arms com­pany Denel. But as protests in­ten­sify, it is clear the rage is symp­to­matic of a deeper pub­lic anger over cor­rup­tion within North West’s govern­ment.

Skele­tons are tum­bling out of the closet, ap­pear­ing to con­firm rot­ten busi­ness deal­ings in the prov­ince, where GDP fell 3.6% in 2016 and more than 41% of peo­ple can’t find work.

As the story of the Mahikeng air­port re­veals, this prov­ince ap­pears to be ground zero for wide­spread cor­rup­tion and mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion at SA Ex­press too.

It is an air­line that can­not af­ford to waste money. Tax­pay­ers forked over R121m last year to give SA Ex­press more “work­ing cap­i­tal”, as well as a R1bn guar­an­tee to keep it in the skies.

And while its au­dited fi­nan­cials for the year to March 2017 still haven’t been re­leased, par­lia­ment was told last year that it had clocked up a R234m net loss, from a slim R16.9m profit the year be­fore. Worse, its pas­sen­ger num­bers have gone back­wards: in 2015, it was fly­ing 4,100 pas­sen­gers a day, now it’s ebbed to around 3,300.

Doc­u­ments seen by the FM show that even SA Ex­press last year doubted if its fi­nan­cials were true. This sug­gests noth­ing has changed since 2016, when the au­di­tor-gen­eral flagged prob­lems with the ac­counts, high­light­ing “ma­te­rial mis­state­ments”, “non-com­pli­ance with leg­is­la­tion” and R35m in “ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture”.

One let­ter, in the FM’S pos­ses­sion, shows SA Ex­press plead­ing with na­tional trea­sury for R612m in “emer­gency fund­ing”.

It’s been chaotic in SA Ex­press’s ex­ec­u­tive suite too. In March last year, CEO Inati Nt­shanga was paid R766,000 to leave.

Vic­tor Xaba took over as act­ing CEO, but within a year he too had quit. In his res­ig­na­tion let­ter, dated Novem­ber 20 2017, he ex­pressed deep con­cern that his ef­forts to turn SA Ex­press around had been un­der­mined by a lack of sup­port from the

Te­bogo Brian van Wyk

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