SAA wine tenders ‘rigged’

2015-01-26 07:30

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Bribes from Western Cape vineyards for lucrative wine contracts with national airline SAA, a “wedding gift” of R20 000 in a shoe box and secret dining feasts to promote a local deli’s chances of scoring a tender.

These are among a string of allegations made against SAA’s food and beverage head in an explosive email that her estranged husband sent to the state-owned airline.

Bongi Sodladla, who is also SAA’s sommelier, was ­suspended after her husband, Wonga, reported a variety of alleged offences he claimed his wife committed to senior SAA officials in December.

But according to Bongi’s lawyer, Roslyn Lerena, the couple are involved in a messy divorce and Wonga’s accusations are nothing more than slander.

SAA this week said it was investigating the allegations against its suspended food and beverage manager, who ­appeared as a guest judge on MasterChef SA last year.

The claims, which are now being investigated, mention that Bongi uses the annual SAA wine selection event – which she manages – as her personal “piggy bank” and receives bribes from wine estates.

The prestigious event affords hundreds of estates a chance to present their wines to a panel, which then decides on the list of wines to be served on SAA flights.

According to Wonga, “those who pay well get the biggest orders. In other words, the bigger the bribe, the bigger the order.”

However, Bongi’s lawyer strongly denies this.

“Our client reminds you that the final decision in respect of the wine selection process does not lie with our client, as these results are ­audited and our client has no way in which to influence the outcome thereof,” reads the lawyer’s letter to SAA.

Another allegation is that Bongi’s cousin is the sole director of a ­company that has received more than R5?million in contracts from SAA in the past three years.

Wonga says he has the necessary paperwork, invoices and communication between SAA and the company to support his allegations.

He declined to comment on whether he had provided the airline with these documents, and SAA did not confirm this.

However, City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, established that the company referred to in the email is known as Liberty Vintners.

The Stellenbosch-based wine merchant allegedly sold wine worth millions of rands to SAA.

Company records show that it has one director, Nontle Somdaka.

However, Somdaka said Wonga Sodladla was the actual owner and manager of Liberty Vintners. Wonga, though, did not respond to ­questions about this allegation.

Somdaka later became annoyed following further questions about the Sodladlas’ involvement in the company and hung up the phone.

She would neither confirm nor deny that she was Bongi Sodladla’s cousin.

Lerena’s response to SAA says: “Our client denies the allegation that she has a cousin in the wine business.”

Another allegation concerns a deli and coffee shop in Sandton that has won food contracts with SAA worth millions of rands.

Wonga claims that in 2008, the company, whose name is known to City Press, gave a “wedding gift/bribe” of R20 000 to his wife in a shoe box shortly before the Sodladlas were married that year.

“When we got home and I realised what it was, I pleaded with my wife to return it or declare it to SAA,” writes Wonga.

Lerena does not deny that her client received the R20?000 gift.

“The gift of R20 000 by the owner of [the company] was declared and handed over to SAA at the first available opportunity during the period of 2008,” she wrote.

Wonga claims that over a period of six years, meals from the company were delivered to their home on the eve of blind-tasting sessions by Air Chefs, SAA’s caterer.

This, he claims, was so that his wife would know what the company would present to Air Chefs and SAA the next day.

He claims she even had “unsuspecting crew members” brought to their home to “tip the scales in her favour” if there was a draw at the tasting sessions.

However, Lerena strongly denies this. “Our client has no final say in the tender process in respect of any approval of contracts awarded to suppliers.”

Attempts to obtain comment from the management of the company this week were unsuccessful.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali confirmed that an internal forensic team was investigating the allegations.

“The airline views these allegations in a serious light ... and should evidence of wrongdoing emerge, SAA will not hesitate to act against any of its employees,” he said.

“In order to avoid causing prejudice to any of the parties affected, SAA will not comment on any specific claims made until the ­investigation has been concluded,” Tlali added.

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