Emails suggest how SAA board member tipped off the Guptas

South African Airways Acting Chief Executive Officer Nico Bezuidenhout Demonstrates Airliner Catering Stripping Operation
The logo of South African Airways sits on the tailfins of Airbus Group NV A340, left, and A330-200 aircraft parked at O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg on February 24, 2015. Image by: Getty Images
An Indian molecular biologist‚ Dr Rajesh Naithani‚ who served on the boards of state airlines‚ South African Airways and South African Express‚ spent his tenure at SAA updating Tony Gupta on happenings at the beleaguered airline‚ leaked emails suggest.

Naithani‚ who flies into South Africa from India for board meetings‚ even informed the Guptas about his interactions with SAA chairwoman Dudu Myeni‚ the emails show.

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The Sunday Times on Sunday reported how Naithani asked for help from Tony Gupta‚ via Sahara CEO Ashu Chawla‚ when he was removed from the SAA board in October 2014. He asked to be moved to Transnet‚ but was instead appointed by Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown to the board of South African Express in May 2015.

Explaining his appointment at the time‚ former public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba’s spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said Naithani had come highly recommended.

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In August 2014 he apparently passed notes emanating from a meeting he held with SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni in which the performance of the then acting CEO Nico Bezuidenhout was discussed. “In total there was a feeling the CEO should be supported in the best interests of the organisation‚” Naithani wrote.

In another email‚ on October 4 2014‚ he inquires about the nomination on to the boards of SAA and Transnet. “There is a question in the nomination form that has the nominee been contacted by Nominator regarding his interest in serving on the Board. We have to answer in yes or no.

“I will deeply appreciate it if you could clarify what should we answer in this. As always I look forward to your support‚” he said.

Both SAA and SAX were coy last year when asked about details related to Naithani’s tenure on the boards‚ including remuneration and whether he was flown into South Africa at the companies’ expense for board meetings.

At the time SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said he could not get any information from the company secretary and directed the Sunday Times to SAA’s annual financial statements. Naithani referred all questions to the Department of Public Enterprises and did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

On Monday Brown’s spokesperson Colin Cruywagen said Brown had last week reiterated her call for the need of an investigation into allegations of state capture‚ saying she would not add anything further.

Responding to questions about Naithani’s appointment at the time it occurred‚ a Gupta family spokesperson denied involvement in his appointment and said any such suggestions were a “politically-motivated campaign against us”.

SA Express‚ where Naithani has served since May 2015‚ pays board members R 27 000 a month.
At the time of his appointment at SAA‚ he had no real aviation experience. 

David Lewis‚ executive director at Corruption Watch‚ said Naithani’s presence on the board was worth looking into particularly as he was not an expert in aviation.

On the sharing of information, he said: “I would think it’s the sort of thing that warrants looking into. It follows a pattern involving key state institutions starting from cabinet and other state-owned companies… I would like to know what their interest was‚” he said.

Two independent sources had earlier alleged that former Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba was approached to include Naithani on to the board. This was‚ at the time‚ in the context of strengthening relations between the two Brics nations. Gigaba’s spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment late on Monday.

Timeslive was told by three former SAA board members that it was common knowledge that he represented Gupta interests and had himself boasted of his proximity to the family.

“What we had heard was that he was deployed by the Guptas to that board. “There was a very strong sentiment that he was put there by them to influence decisions and win over the chairmen of sub-committees‚” said one source.

Another said: “I knew he was from India but I never understood why or how he was on the board. ”Normally you could see a person is on a board because of their skills or experience… “SAA has had foreigners on its board before‚ but those have always been people who had exceptional experience in aviation.”

Naithani served on the sub-committees for Audit and Risk‚ Procurement‚ and Human Resources‚ but his time there was unspectacular. One board member said: “Disinterested‚ I think is a good word. “He was not making any waves in my opinion.”

Another said: “Along with the chair‚ he was one of the people we complained were not contributing at the required level. “At some stage the minister was made aware of these complaints‚ but I can tell you he was there but not really there.”

Sabelo Skiti – Tiso Black Star Group


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