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SAA-Takatso deal should be probed by Special Investigating Unit, MPs say, but Gordhan disagrees

SAA-Takatso deal should be probed by Special Investigating Unit, MPs say, but Gordhan disagrees
Passenger jets, operated by South African Airlines (SAA), taxi at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

‘We would be failing in our duties as MPs if we did not ask Minister Gordhan to explain how SAA will sustain itself after 18 months.’

The SAA-Takatso deal has been grounded by mutual agreement between government and the consortium, but MPs have decided that there are questions that still need answering. They recommend that the transaction be referred to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

Wednesday’s decision, unanimous, by all accounts, would now be communicated to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the public enterprises committee agreed. 

However, any letter the Speaker may write to the president on the back of this decision simply does not have the same status as a recommendation adopted by the House that then becomes part of the record of Parliament. 

Letters are merely correspondence that may or not be made public. The additional twist is that the SIU only works off presidential proclamations, and there’s no guarantee Parliament can persuade President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It remains unclear if the public enterprises committee intends to take its recommendation to the House. If it does, then it is up against time as the House rises for elections on 28 March. 

Anything not finalised when the national legislature rises, lapses in terms of parliamentary rules.

Wednesday’s decision by lawmakers comes against the backdrop of persistent sparring between Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan – he wanted MPs to sign non-disclosure agreements before accessing deal-related documents – and lawmakers including ANC MPs who were sharply critical of the minister. 

Gordhan and his former director-general Kgathatso Tlhakudi traded verbal barbs, including over last week’s briefing by one of Parliament’s legal advisors who said the deal had raised issues of good governance but did not involve outright corruption.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Confidentiality is not secrecy, says Gordhan, after MPs fall in line to keep mum on SAA deal

In a letter to Parliament’s public enterprises committee chairperson, Khaya Magaxa, Gordhan took issue with MPs wanting to “uncover the truth” of the SAA-Takatso deal, referring “once again to the DPE (Department of Public Enterprises) contention that there is NOTHING untoward in the transaction”. 

“It has always been our contention that if there is any ‘untruth’ to be ‘uncovered’, why is Parliament allowing a disgruntled former DG who was found guilty of several charges of misconduct and subsequently dismissed [sic]. 

“Why has he been given such time and credence? This further reinforces our concern that this is a political vendetta,” Gordhan wrote on 19 March in a letter seen by Daily Maverick.

A week earlier, the ex-DG also didn’t mince his words in a letter to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, saying he had never signed the Molisane Memorandum of 8 April 2021 that picked the Takatso consortium as SAA’s strategic equity partner (SEP).

In June 2023, Tlhakudi made a whistleblower’s protected disclosure to Parliament.

“I did not sign such a memorandum,” Tlhakudi wrote on 13 March. The letter, which Daily Maverick has seen, was referred to the public enterprises committee. 

“Minister Gordhan chose the Takatso consortium on his own and set up a negotiating team in the ministry to negotiate the terms of the deal with his preferred SEP… I was not part of this team,” wrote Tlhakudi, adding that the first time he had heard of the deal was in November 2021. 

“The minister has a lot to answer for with regard to the SAA privatisation.”

For the MPs on Wednesday, more questions than answers remained, not least of which concerned the secrecy around the transaction documentation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pravin Gordhan doubles down on the need for secrecy around the sale of SAA

Questions included the valuation of the national flag carrier, how Takatso was selected as the strategic equity partner when it failed to make the shortlist of transaction advisor Rand Merchant Bank (RMB), and why – if Public Enterprises appointed an outside entity for the deal due to capacity constraints – was the department able to adjudicate the SAA share sale after the transaction advisor’s departure. 

Magaxa also raised questions around the ex-DG’s signature as part of the reason to refer the SAA-Takatso deal to the SIU. 

“This presents a serious dispute of facts that can only be resolved by an entity with forensic (capabilities),” he told his committee.

“In view of the above, the committee cannot say that the SAA-Takatso transaction was above board and will, in this regard, be recommending that law enforcement agencies do their work in unravelling the truth about this transaction, particularly the alleged forgery of the former DG’s signature in the SEP appointment process.”

Lawmakers again raised how they could only browse through but not properly read the transaction documents when they were finally made available. 

Annoyance was also voiced over last Wednesday’s announcement that Cabinet had agreed that the SAA-Takatso deal was terminated.

“The minister to date has not deemed it fit to come to brief the committee… the only thing that happened is the minister called just 10 minutes before he addressed the media to say Cabinet had approved government withdrawing from the deal,” said Magaxa. No one disagreed that this was a snub to the parliamentary oversight committee.

DA MP Mimmy Gondwe led a push to have Gordhan or SAA brief the committee on how the national airliner would be sustainable. 

“We would be failing in our duties as MPs if we did not ask Minister Gordhan to explain how SAA will sustain itself after 18 months.” 

The UDM’s Nqabayomzi Kwankwa agreed, adding that the circumstances of RMB’s departure must also be included in an SIU probe. 

“It cannot be that the committee is informed casually via phone call that the deal is cancelled, as if we are not important. But members of the executive come here (to the committee) to beg for money or bailouts – then we are important.”

Again, despite heightened party political rivalry in the run-up to the 2024 elections, no one disagreed.

But MPs are running out of time as the National Assembly rises soon for elections. When lawmakers return, a public enterprises committee may no longer exist. 

“But there will be a committee SAA can be accountable to,” hinted Magaxa, saying that transport – in line with the ANC’s 2022 national conference resolution on state-owned enterprises – must return to line departments. 

“(SAA) will go to that committee.” DM

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