Fascinating tale of the SAA heist and the whistleblower

Review: Vivien Horler

Hijackers on Board – How one courageous whistleblower fought against the capture of SAA, by Cynthia Stimpel (Tafelberg)

The wholesale looting that has made up the State Capture project is so overwhelming that among many media consumers, including me, there is a tendency, when coming across some new malfeasance, to roll one’s eyes and move on.

It’s not that I don’t care – I do. But it’s all too much to keep track of.

And then you come across one focused, coherent account that details one aspect of the project, and it’s as if someone has shone a spotlight on what has been going on.

The someone in this case is Cynthia Stimpel, who was head of treasury at SAA.

Everything she describes in this book is in the public domain, much of it at the Zondo Commission, but her detailed and chronological account makes for truly absorbing reading. And it made me wonder how I would have responded had I been in a situation where I had a bond and children at university, and where pressure was mounting at work to just “Sign here”, “Just do it, Cynthia.”

But Stimpel was no push-over. It helps to know that she was one of six women who applied to join the Sunday Times-sponsored expedition to climb Mount Everest. She didn’t make it – Cathy O’Dowd and Deshun Deysel went instead – but that’s the calibre of woman she is. And in the course of the try-outs she did climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

After a career in banking, Stimpel, aged nearly 50, joined SAA in December 2006 as head financial risk manager. In this post she had to manage the foreign currency and fuel price risks, as well as to oversee the internal controls of the department.

A cluster of resignations among senior management saw Stimpel appointed as acting group treasurer, a position she formally took over in 2015. It was, she says, her dream job. “But soon it would become a nightmare.”

Stimpel goes into a lot of detail in this book, with all sorts of irregular goings on reported, including the famous Airbus lease, the Mumbai flight route and Dudu Myeni’s riding roughshod over the board. I’ll mention just one set of shenanigans.

By 2014 SAA was in financial trouble, exacerbated by the Home Affairs decision that children could fly internationally only with the written permission of both parents and an unabridged birth certificate – regulations that had “a dramatic effect” on SAA’s revenue.

In 2014 Stimpel had to draw up the airline’s annual borrowing plan, and one of her recommendations was that the airline’s debt be consolidated through longer-term loans from various financial institutions, usually the pre-vetted big four banks. The board approved the plan in April 2015.

By the time Stimpel became group treasurer, the airline owed almost R15billion, loans guaranteed by the government. Loans of around R7bn were due to mature, and the need for finance was urgent.

A crucial board meeting was to be held in December 2015 to discuss the treasury department’s proposals for funding, but Stimpel was told not to attend. Considering she was the group treasurer and expected to present the borrowing plan, this was highly unusual. Later she was told the board had decided against two funding proposals, including one by the big four banks. The board favoured a loan from the Free State Development Corporation, an organisation tasked with funding development projects in that province and certainly not in the business of bailing out other government institutions.

All sorts of red flags went up in Stimpel’s mind – the process was entirely irregular. But Stimpel’s deputy told her it was a board decision. “We have to get the funding done. Just accept it, Cynthia.”

Stimpel’s boss, the CFO of SAA, then told her the board had decided to find a “transaction advisor” to look at the airline’s debt profile, analyse its portfolio and restructure debts. But all this work was already being done internally, argued Stimpel.

Despite her objections, an advert appeared in the Sunday Times calling for tenders for the delivery of a transaction advisor. Eventually an organisation called BNP Capital , was appointed – despite being considered “high risk” by the bid evaluation committee – with a mandate both to find prospective funders and to evaluate them, which Stimpel believed would create a conflict of interest.

And then the CFO informed Stimpel that BNP was planning to charge SAA a fee of 3% of the needed R15billion, which amounted to R300m. Stimpel told her boss she would not sign the submission to the bid adjudication committee – and then went on a long-planned holiday. Yes – you’ve guessed it – while she was away her deputy signed the document.

On her return, in a last-ditch bid to scupper the plan, she  wrote to three of the country’s main banks to establish what fee they would charge for a hypothetical loan of R15m. She discovered it was R85m – almost four times less than BNP Capital’s R300m.

Stimpel’s efforts to foil the plan failed.

She worried that she had not done enough, and decided to become a whistleblower. She sent a complaint to the Public Protector and to Corruption Watch, but neither responded.

And then she contacted Outa’s Wayne Duvehage, who reacted immediately, and slowly the entire sad story began to trickle out. In the process Stimpel was suspended and then essentially fired. Aged 59, she went on early retirement and accepted a settlement of just six months’ salary.

Her determination to do the right thing meant she lost out on the last four years of her expected career. This is a brave and readable book, and a sobering one.



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