South Africa will sell a majority stake in its collapsed national flag carrier to local investors in the first privatisation of an ailing state-owned company since President Cyril Ramaphosa took power in 2018.
Harith General Partners, an African infrastructure investor and Global Aviation, a local airline operator, will take over 51 per cent of South African Airways, Ramaphosa’s government said on Friday.
SAA was once the continent’s biggest carrier but needed tens of billions of rands in bailouts to survive in recent years, adding to the strain on South Africa’s public finances during a long period of stagnation in Africa’s most industrial economy.
“The new SAA will not be dependent on the fiscus. It will be agile enough to cope with the current uncertainty, and improvement, in global travel,” said Pravin Gordhan, the minister overseeing state-owned companies.
The government will retain the remaining 49 per cent of SAA. It will have a golden share in the airline of a third of voting rights that is also applicable to “certain areas of national interest,” it said.
The investors plan to list the new airline “as one way of addressing future funding requirements and to enable all South Africans to take part in its success,” the consortium said.
The investors will have a major task in turning round SAA, which has a history of political interference by the ruling African National Congress.
SAA last made a profit in 2011, before rising debts forced it into business rescue, South Africa’s bankruptcy alternative, at the end of 2019.
The global pandemic and restrictions on travel to South Africa largely grounded the airline over the past year. SAA emerged from business administration just weeks ago.
SAA was once Africa’s biggest airline, but it has been eclipsed by a new generation of state-owned carriers connecting the continent to the world, particularly Ethiopian Airlines and Gulf rivals.
SAA also struggled to compete with low-cost carriers at home, including on one of the world’s busiest routes between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The airline eventually succumbed to a decade of rot, graft, and meddling over routes under Jacob Zuma, the former president, a long-running judicial inquiry has heard. Zuma denies wrongdoing.
“There are incredible skills and talent available right here in South Africa as well as an abundance of low-priced aircraft available globally — both critical ingredients for a successful airline,” said Gidon Novick, head of the consortium buying SAA.
Global Aviation recently launched Lift, a budget domestic carrier in South Africa, of which Novick is a co-founder.
Harith owns Lanseria, Johannesburg’s second international airport after the main OR Tambo hub, as part of a consortium.
This week Ramaphosa also announced that South African companies including miners will have greater scope to produce their own power outside the Eskom electricity monopoly, in another sign of greater willingness to tackle inefficient state companies.