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