Ron Derby | Painted into corner, what does Mboweni do about SAA?

Finance minister Tito Mboweni at the press conference before he delivered his 2019 budget speech  (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)
Finance minister Tito Mboweni at the press conference before he delivered his 2019 budget speech (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)
  • Finance Minister Tito Mboweni early on said SAA should close its doors, but the airline has faced multiple resuscitation attempts that cost billions.
  • The country is facing an unprecedented crisis, and further attempts to save the airline are unlikely to receive a positive public reception. 
  • But the Department of Public Enterprises, as the shareholder representative, has been backing the prospect of reinvention of the airline with only a promise of future funding.

One of the first statements Tito Mboweni made as he returned to public life as finance minister almost two years ago was that long-struggling airline SAA should just close its doors.

It was a strong signal as ever and welcomed by markets and, honestly, most South Africans exhausted from the squandered billions in yet another harebrained turnaround plan for one of Africa and the world's oldest airlines. More than R30 billion has been spent over the past decade to get the 86-year-old company flying straight. All in vain.

Mboweni, like most of us, and, dare I say it the governing party itself, was sitting on the sidelines of former president Jacob Zuma's administration as it continuously backed plans to resuscitate the airline. As the state, it has tagged one too many companies in its vast portfolio with the tag "too big to fail", with SAA being a beneficiary of this unwavering loyalty to the cause.

It was understandable that in taking up his position at the head of Treasury in October two years ago, Mboweni's first order of business was in laying down the law for the worst performing of the more than 700 state-owned enterprises in its portfolio of assets. And that is saying a lot.

What his early season statement served to do was to fast forward history, bringing SAA's day of reckoning much faster. He was aided by labour union the National Union of Metalworkers, who did not read tea leaves and called for a pay strike at possibly the worst time in the airline's history.

Spurred by the decision of its sole shareholder and biggest creditor to no longer come to its aid, lenders with credit lines to the airline were no longer interested in extending them any further. The pay increases the union boasted about achieving as a result of the pay strike at the end of last year led it to business rescue. 

Tight corner

Without Treasury's support and importantly that of Mboweni, the Department of Public Enterprises, as the shareholder representative, has been backing the prospect of rescue or rather reinvention of the airline with only a promise of future funding.

There are not too many flush and interested investors for SAA. Having been at the forefront of the collapse of governance at the institution, creditors, who should have long bailed on the SAA story if you consider the reign of Dudu Myeni, have been running for the hills without the guarantee of the state in hard currency. 

The unprecedented descent into business rescue for a state-owned enterprise in December was inevitable from the moment Treasury drew a hard line in the sand. Today, it faces two scenarios. Either its liquidation or the backing of what will probably be its last salvation mission by the state.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has in recent weeks expressed his hopes for the establishment of a new SAA and as such the department has the full backing of the Cabinet in this "reimagined" future of the airline.

Standing alone and importantly with chequebook in hand is the Mboweni-led Treasury, which faces a R300 billion tax shortfall this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Under pressure, the department is tasked with reviving an economy that is set to contract by double digit figures and protect the most vulnerable in society that is only set to expand with a rise in jobless numbers to the tune of as much as one million people. Considering this, the department would have to back plans for a revival of the airline to the tune of some R12 billion. 

An expectation that comes as Treasury is being pressured from all sides of society to do much more to boost the economy, which is being haunted by load shedding once again. Holes are being poked into its half-a-trillion-rand stimulus plan. Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the critique, it has failed at the most important job of inspiring confidence in South Africa's economic response.

Another rescue? 

Set against these factors, it is not too difficult to imagine what the reception will be should Mboweni write a cheque to back SAA's revival. His initial instinct, I imagine, is to not sign off on anything that involves public money bailing what has been a bad investment for decades. But to follow it, he would be going against his boss in Ramaphosa and his Cabinet and not to mention the wolves that lay in wait in Luthuli House. 

To fall into line has never been one of his strongest points. There is much more riding on the vote on SAA's rescue plan than just its future. Mboweni's public statements on it have in the end served to paint him into a corner. His choice will either boost his own credibility and that of Treasury, or weaken it by bowing to the pressures of the collective. 

It seems the story of SAA, while not as much of a sovereign risk that Eskom continues to be, weighs more heavily on the shoulders of this country's finance ministers, especially over the past decade.

Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene had running battles with the former chairperson of the airline, as Dudu Myeni demanded Treasury come to its aid. It is a battle he would lose resulting in his dramatic axing on that December 2015 evening. An embarrassed Malusi Gigaba, as both minister of public enterprises and finance minister, had at some stage fought his own bruising battles and came off second best.

And here again, in the story of SAA, a finance minister faces a difficult choice. For stability in the department that has seen six ministers over the past the five years, does he follow political prudence and back another adventure with this "hallowed" airline to ensure continuity, especially in these uncertain Covid-19 era? Or does he set the cat among the pigeons and follow through with his initial instincts. We should know soon.

Ron Derby is the editor of Fin24. 

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