Former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni claims she was made a scapegoat for the airline’s failed 2015 deal with Emirates, which would have netted the cash-strapped carrier at least $100-million a year in additional revenue.
Myeni was testifying at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria where the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) and SAA Pilots Association (Saapa) are trying to have her declared a delinquent director. She made her first appearance at the hearings on Thursday after previously saying she could not afford to attend court.
In June 2015, the airline’s executives travelled to Paris to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Emirates that would have guaranteed SAA additional revenue and expanded its network.
Former SAA acting CEO Nico Bezuidenhout and then-CFO Wolfgang Meyer testified that Myeni called Bezuidenhout while they were in Paris in the early hours of 16 June 2015, the day they were meant to publicly sign the agreement.
She allegedly told the CEO, who put the call on speaker for Meyer to hear, that former president Jacob Zuma had instructed her to tell them not to sign the agreement.
Bezuidenhout and Meyer said the board had tacitly supported the deal but Myeni opposed it. They claimed she obstructed the agreement that, according to Meyer, “would have put SAA in a different league”.
“I don’t accept the allegations. It is baseless and not true,” Myeni testified while being led by her counsel, advocate Nqabayethu Buthelezi.
“It is incorrect and I’m glad I’m before the court to state the facts about the Emirates deal.”
Myeni claimed the executives needed board approval to sign the deal but they had not replied to her concerns about Emirates flying to multiple destinations in South Africa and increasing competition on SAA’s domestic routes. The executives claimed they had addressed the concerns.
“I’m afraid, my lady, the 16th of June came without us being ready to have the approval of the board,” Myeni told Judge Ronel Tolmay.
She said Emirates’ representative in South Africa was pressuring her to approve the deal and apparently called Zuma to get his backing. Myeni said Zuma then called her to question why he was getting calls from an employee of the Dubai-based airline.
Myeni, who chairs Zuma’s foundation, denied she had taken the issue to Zuma or that she took instructions from him.
“Whether I serve in the Jacob Zuma Foundation or not it doesn’t mean that I take issues of SAA to the president,” she said.
Myeni claimed the board and not her alone had blocked the signing of the MOU in June 2015 because it was still waiting to hear from a team established to review the proposal.
“It is not true, my lady, that the Emirates deal was blocked by Dudu. It is not true, my lady, that SAA lost moneys and billions of rands because we did not approve this,” she said.
Myeni was clearly frustrated by media reports at the time blaming her and Zuma for the failed deal. The SAA board approved the MOU with Emirates in July 2015 but it was not implemented, which Myeni will use to show she did not torpedo the deal.
“I was made a scapegoat,” she said.
She suggested Bezuidenhout might have been disgruntled after missing his “opportunity to go and shine in France in the presence of the world or global space”. She also disputed Bezuidenhout and Meyer’s claim that she said Zuma instructed her to scrap the Emirates deal.
After returning from Paris, Bezuidenhout wrote a lengthy account of what happened to the failed deal but did not mention Zuma.
“A lie is a lie. The fact that it is not included here means it did not happen. It means Emirates is the one that escalated everything to the president,” said Myeni.
It’s been a challenging week for the Myeni family. Myeni’s son Thalente Myeni testified at the State Capture commission on February 17, 2020, about how funds from a state housing contract were allegedly transferred to the Jacob G Zuma Foundation on his mother’s orders.
The commission also heard how Myeni allegedly orchestrated a system of looting and laundering money from the Mhlathuze Water Board, where she was chairperson.
Myeni’s hearing continues in the North Gauteng High Court. She’s the only witness expected to be called by her defence team and will face cross-examination after her counsel finishes leading her testimony. The hearing is expected to finish next week.
“There is no case. There is none,” said advocate Buthelezi in Myeni’s defence on Thursday. DM