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It’s an expensive resignation for SAA CEO Vuyani Jarana, as it confirms that his expected turnaround plan won’t work, one he put a R100,000 wager on with FMF’s Leon Louw. Whether or not he’ll pay up is another story, but his leaving doesn’t bode well for turning the beleaguered state-owned airline around. Jarana said his ideas lacked the support from government, i.e. the money to get to his 2021 break-even plan. But given government is stretched when it comes to its finances, most South Africans would argue that keeping the lights on is of bigger concern. A Telkom-type solution may offer better value, if government can put the mirror away. But the value of the airline is looking bleaker by the day, and an investment may yield no return and just pay off debt. But given the country’s ‘official’ unemployment figure touched 26.7% and SAA is home to 10,000 jobs, something needs to be done, and quick. There has been talk of restructuring the airline into three separate units, but not much has been said since the idea was leaked. The Dudu Myeni impact will be felt by the airline for years to come, and navigating a way out won’t be easy, but the plan, whatever it is, needs to be put in place to ease fears, either way. – Stuart Lowman
Three things to learn from exit of South African Airways’s CEO
The National Treasury isn’t committing to an agreement to put R21.7bn ($1.5bn) toward the state-owned carrier’s 2021 break-even plan, Jarana said in a four-page resignation letter. The lack of clarity has made it impossible for SAA to attract outside funding, and a R3.5bn bridge facility runs out this month, he said.
With the Treasury referring all queries to the department of public enterprises, the ministry officially responsible for SAA, the airline’s future is shrouded in doubt. Ratings companies will be watching for the government’s next move, which may also influence the rand.
Below are some key findings from Jarana’s decision to walk away.
SAA isn’t a state priority
South Africa’s budget is under strain, and the state carrier is far from the only government-owned company under duress. Of greater concern for President Cyril Ramaphosa is power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., which supplies almost all the country’s electricity and is groaning under R440bn of debt. While Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced a bailout plan for Eskom in his last budget, he ignored SAA.
“There are other more important state-owned enterprises that we have to focus on now, such as Eskom,” Mike Schussler, a chief economist at Johannesburg-based economists.co.za. “The economy cannot survive without Eskom, the economy can survive without SAA.”
SAA’s future may be in parts
While there’s been little indication so far the South African government has plans to break up SAA, that may be a way to raise cash for the airline – either through unit sales or the reduction of operations and services. Mango Airlines, SAA’s domestic low-cost unit, is profitable, while other parts of the business may also be of interest to buyers.
“It’s very clear that the government cannot support the current levels of losses plus the restructuring plan, so there needs to be a reduction in the scale of operations,” said Joachim Vermooten, an independent aviation analyst. That will also mean cutting jobs, he added, and SAA employs about 10,000 people in a country with an unemployment rate of almost 28%.
SAA has a leadership problem
Jarana’s arrival in November 2017 was seen as a fresh start following a series of leadership changes and corruption scandals under ex-Chairman Dudu Myeni, a close ally of then President Jacob Zuma. Jarana came from Johannesburg-based wireless carrier Vodacom Group Ltd., where he was a senior executive, and his private-sector experience was touted loudly at the time as major asset.
However, one reason he gave for quitting SAA was the high level of bureaucracy, lack of accountability and sluggish decision making at government departments. Eskom’s CEO also quit recently, citing the “unimaginable demands” of the job.
The South African Airways Pilots Association said that while Jarana “did his best to turn SAA around under incredibly difficult circumstances,” his successor should come from the aviation industry.
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