Memory lapse aviation exec headed for prison crash landing

By Michael Appel

When Vuyisile Ndzeku testified at the State Capture Inquiry in August 2020, it wasn’t what he said, but rather his abysmal memory that won him dubious acclaim.

Ndzeku was a director of ground-handling company Swissport SA, and another company, JM Aviation. He would concede on the stand that he never informed Swissport he was a director or shareholder in JM Aviation. Both entities would do business with South African Airways (SAA) and SAA Technical (SAAT) through multibillion-rand tenders.

When were you married?

The internet had a field day with him when evidence leader Advocate Kate Hofmeyr asked him when he got married. As journalists, we joked getting this answer wrong would land him in more trouble than the raft of corruption allegations he could potentially face.

His response, “I don’t remember,” possibly saw him relegated to the couch by his wife and was one that played on repeat throughout his testimony. Perhaps the most famous Ndzeku-ism was something he blurted out after the Inquiry chairperson snapped at him to be honest and come clean. Ndzeku’s retort, while sporting sunglasses indoors was, “Chair, what I know, I can’t remember. That’s the bottom line.”

Part one of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s report is long, convoluted in many respects, and quite an infuriating read as a taxpayer. To spare flooding our community with too much information, let’s look at certain instances where Swissport SA and JM Aviation were involved.

Ground-handling contract

The report notes: “On 31 July 2012, the board awarded the contract to Swissport for five years from 2012 onwards. The contract with Swissport was never actually signed or concluded but it nevertheless provided the services to SAA. An amount of R1.139 billion was paid to Swissport without any contract being in place during this period.”

In 2016, SAAT would award Swissport another five-year tender with no public procurement process taking place. In February 2016, Yakhe Kwinana, SAAT’s board chairperson, met with Ndzeku and other Swissport executives. At this meeting, Kwinana insisted Swissport sign a new R1bn agreement, setting aside 30% of the contract value for a BEE partner. 

SAA’s illegal 30% BEE set-aside rule

Swissport initially refused to sign this on the grounds that it was already a 49% BEE-owned company and that SAA’s 30% set-aside rule was likely illegal. In fact, National Treasury had warned the state-owned entity the set-aside rule it was trying to force on service providers was unlawful. Nevertheless, the deal went ahead and shortly after it was signed on 28 March 2016, Swissport made a R28.5m payment to JM Aviation. 

Slicing up the pie

JM Aviation was barely functioning, with only R1,000 in its account prior to that very sizeable payment. It was established by the Commission’s investigators that this often indicated the company was nothing more than a front. Almost immediately after the millions poured in, a R20m payment was made to Daluxolo Peter, a businessman whose company, Jamicron, was initially SAA’s preferred BEE partner to Swissport.

“Mr Peter’s version was that it was Ndzeku who had established Jamicron, installed his daughter as a director of Jamicron, together with Mr Peter, and then facilitated the R20 million payment to Jamicron.

“The bank records also showed that a further R2.5 million of the Swissport payment to JM Aviation was paid out to BMK Attorneys, with the reference ‘Pete’. This money was used by BMK Attorneys to pay for Lester Peter, the Head of Procurement of SAA, to buy two luxury sports cars the following day,” the report states.

Money for jam

Despite his denials on the stand that he benefited in any way – essentially on both ends, as a director of both Swissport SA and JM Aviation – R2.5m made its way into Ndzeku’s private account from the deal. True to form, he could not recall receiving that money. Ndzeku’s response to the Inquiry when shown his bank statement reflecting the payment was, “Okay, that’s good. I’m happy; it’s good if I did get some money. Swissport gave me some money.”

The Commission found that if Swissport paid this amount in order to secure the ground-handling contract with SAA, and “knew that it would be used to pay bribes to SAA and SAAT officials, then it committed an act of corruption”.

The sharing of the loot didn’t stop there and more SAA and SAAT executives would get their piece of the pie. In the face of such evidence, surely prosecutors would be licking their chops to get their hands on a case like this?

Director at Centre for Risk Analysis, John Endres, on South Africa’s political will to fight corruption:

We have a very high degree of transparency into malfeasance in the public sector but, unfortunately, it is not associated with an equally high degree of accountability and consequences for whatever misdeeds are identified. We should be seeing some prosecutions … some court proceedings, maybe some convictions and maybe some punishment. But already Gwede Mantashe was quick to cast cold water on those hopes by saying the report should really be used to assist the ANC in its renewal and helping it to learn from its mistakes of the past. [Mantashe’s] trying to create a very clear distinction between the old ANC that did all these terrible things and the new ANC. 

Endres on whether the NPA has sufficient resources:

I think it [the NPA] is certainly not equipped with sufficient resources to investigate everything contained in the report. I think the allegations are so vast and so far-reaching that it will take a vastly larger agency to investigate all of them. But I certainly think it would be able to focus on a few high-profile cases and try to achieve some results in those cases.

Zondo’s report finds that the funds that flowed to various individuals were likely ‘kick-back payments’ to those who had secured the conclusion of the Swissport ground-handling contract with SAA. 

“The Commission recommends that the law enforcement agencies should further investigate the role of Swissport and the above individuals in these dealings and, where warranted, the NPA should consider the prosecution of all those involved in criminal acts,” it concludes.

Approached for comment, Swissport International’s spokesperson Stefan Hurtung told BizNews, “Swissport is aware of contents of the first part of the Zondo report and will continue to co-operate with the authorities in their investigation.”

On a side note, if Ndzeku is ever convicted, it wouldn’t be his first stint in prison. He was found guilty on drug-related charges and sentenced to nine years in prison in 1992, which was eventually reduced to three years upon appeal.

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