Bizarre twist to SAA crisis as Hawks investigate plot to down black pilot

December 7, 2015, 4:15am

By Carol Paton, Business Day Live. Photo: Thinkstock

THE Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation — the Hawks — says it is investigating several conspiracies to sabotage South African Airways (SAA) including a bizarre plot based on "intelligence reports" that white pilots planned to bring down an aircraft while being flown by a black pilot.

SAA is in crisis. It has deep financial difficulties and is in the grip of a board in conflict with both executive management and the shareholder representative, the Treasury.

The conflict has recently taken a racial turn, with board members accusing those responsible for leaks to the media of racist motives.

Last week, board chairwoman Dudu Myeni confirmed that the Hawks had initiated an investigation into financial losses at the airline.

There are now clear signs that the Hawks investigation will go much further than this and will probe "intelligence reports" on sabotage. The probe will involve interviews with a large number of people.

The latest development has sinister undertones as bogus intelligence reports are frequently used in internal African National Congress battles to discredit or undermine opponents through the use of state resources.

The claim about the pilots’ plot came to light on Friday after head of South African Airways Pilots Association John Harty was asked to present himself at the Douglasdale police station in Johannesburg for an interview with the Hawks.

Mr Harty has been an outspoken critic of Ms Myeni in letters to the newspapers and was recently involved in presiding over an association meeting that proposed a vote of no confidence in her.

Ms Myeni complained to Parliament that SAA pilots were racist and overpaid. She also said the pilots’ association made racially polarising remarks during a general SAA staff meeting, which had compromised pilot authority and safety on board.

Mr Harty says that at the Douglasdale police station on Friday, five members of the Hawks — including Brig Nyameka Xaba, who is head of crimes against the state and tactical operations — interviewed him, asking a range of questions on his relationship with various SAA technicians, as well as questions on the functioning of an aircraft rudder and how, if it were damaged, it could bring the aircraft down. Mr Harty said he did not know the technicians named in the interview.

"Throughout the interview, they were very polite and said I was not being charged; they were just informing me that they had this information and were acting on intelligence," he said.

However, at one stage during the 90-minute interview, Mr Harty was asked if he knew what the definition of treason was.

"They didn’t threaten me, although I really felt intimidated," he said.

The pilots are to meet again on Thursday to discuss possible legal avenues for forcing the removal of Ms Myeni, who they say is damaging the airline. Among these are forcing the company into business rescue or taking industrial action.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of SAA’s 767 pilots are white males, the vote did not take place along racial lines, with only two pilots voting against the no-confidence motion.

The introduction of the Hawks into the fray at SAA has upped the ante in Ms Myeni’s battle against SAA employees, who have been leaking inside information to the media in what they say is a bid to save the airline. Her colleague on the board, Yakhe Kwinana, has warned that racism was the motivation behind the leaks.

Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that the Hawks were now actively involved at SAA.

Brig Mulaudzi said that "there is also an individual who is not attached to SAA who we have a keen interest in", but did not elaborate.

Ms Myeni has initiated several forensic investigations by lawyers and auditors into executives in the past.

She was also linked to the bogus intelligence document that attempted to smear officials at the Treasury, accusing them of being apartheid agents. In that instance, the bogus report was sent to a Treasury official by e-mail from Ms Myeni with a note to the effect that she had recently come across the document.

Ms Myeni has also clashed repeatedly with both executives and Cabinet ministers. She has seen off four top executives in the past year and two Cabinet ministers in the past two years.

Three important commercial transactions designed to improve SAA’s dire financial situation have also been blocked by Ms Myeni.