There are

Finweek English Edition - - COVER STORY - Siza Mz­imela

count­less quotable quotes about the air­line in­dus­try that should put any sane in­di­vid­ual off run­ning one of them. “If the Wright brothers were alive to­day,” wrote South­west Air­lines founder Herb Kelle­her, “Wil­bur would have to fire Orville to re­duce costs.”

Let that act as a warn­ing if you are mulling over an of­fer from the board of SAA.

Be­ing CEO of the na­tional car­rier is our prime can­di­date. Can it really be turned around? Can it ever be a sus­tain­able self-fund­ing busi­ness given the fact that the State re­gards it as a strate­gic as­set – cru­cial to the process of car­ry­ing the na­tional f lag to for­eign ter­ri­to­ries and bring­ing back hordes of tourists and busi­ness trav­ellers at a rea­son­able rate? Run as a loss-leader – that strat­egy might pay off but tax­pay­ers are in­creas­ingly frus­trated by the fact that Government keeps pro­vid­ing the air­line with sup­port – an es­ti­mated R16bn in just over 10 years.

The job is avail­able and the most ob­vi­ous South African can­di­date for the po­si­tion has not been ap­proached.

Chris Smythe was act­ing CEO af­ter Khaya Ngqula and did a solid job at en­sur­ing f lights got off the ground and landed on sched­ule. Nowa­days, he is FD at hot tech­nol­ogy com­pany Pin­na­cle. The air­line even turned a small profit dur­ing his ten­ure. But he left when it be­came clear he would not be made full-time CEO.

Rather the po­si­tion was filled by Siza Mz­imela, then CEO of SA Ex­press. When the SAA AGM had to be post­poned this year, it raised ques­tions too about the qual­ity of the books at SA Ex­press. There is a process un­der­way to re­solve the prob­lems over sev­eral years. Mz­imela quit just days af­ter a top level board walk­out which saw, among oth­ers, re­spected busi­ness lead­ers like Cheryl Caro­lus and Rus­sel Loub­ser leave in frus­tra­tion at not be­ing able to ful­fil their obli­ga­tions due to the re­fusal up un­til that point of the State to pro­vide ei­ther the cap­i­tal or the nec­es­sary guar­an­tees to do what the board felt nec­es­sary to drive a turn­around.

Profit does not ap­pear to be its over­ar­ch­ing mo­tive. On that ba­sis alone, that should make it a pretty cushy job. But of the four CEOs, ex­clud­ing Smythe, name one who has left the or­gan­i­sa­tion over the past dozen years who has left with rep­u­ta­tion f irmly in­tact. Head hunters are fall­ing over them­selves to fill a job that will earn them a lu­cra­tive com­mis­sion.

“Who would want it?” asks Paul Theron, MD of Ves­tact. “Your board is like a toy tele­phone, the direc­tors might as well all quit now. Ev­ery­body knows that Gi­gaba calls the shots. It’s like be­ing ap­pointed as chief of Lada in the old Soviet Union, then told that you have to run all your ideas past Gos­plan.”

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