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Sunday Read: Disinformation campaigns erupt at SAA and SAA Technical

Nov 24 2019 08:11
Ferial Haffajee

Besides a crippling strike this week, SAA also found itself the butt of a disinformation campaign: trade unionists warned passengers that it was unsafe to fly the airline when some workers returned to work allowing the airline to start limited operations.

The sine qua non of flying is safety and so that line must have put the jitters into passengers already skittish about the strike.

It took the Civil Aviation Authority to put out a statement after spot checks to set the disinformation to right. At SAA Technical, responsible for aircraft maintenance, another disinformation campaign is under way against newly installed CEO Adam Voss, who is Australian.

He is under the cosh from people inside who are feeding allegedly false information to Iqbal Survé’s Sunday Independent and onto social media.

On November 3, the Sunday Independent carried a worrying article about Voss titled "SAA Technical CEO’s dodgy past." It alleged that Voss had not revealed that he was working at a mining company which contracted a helicopter service later involved in a crash in which 10 people were killed.

The article alleged that Voss had changed pilot specs on the contract and implied that this was behind the crash.

The facts are very different, according to a letter that Voss had to compile for acting SAA chairperson Thandeka Mgoduso after the article was published.  

Voss, in fact, was not employed at the Indonesian company when the crash occurred (he was a vice-president at Emirates at the time and had left years before the crash) and a crash investigation by the Indonesian aviation authority attributed it to causes which had nothing to do with the contracting company.

'Slanderous'

"The crash investigation report clearly points to the helicopter operator for the root causes of the crash and recommendations with not mention of the mine site and or policy. I think it is also worth reiterating that I had left the employ of the company 2.5 years prior to the accident and to link me to crash is slanderous."

Fin24 has read the aviation investigation report. It finds that "The flight was conducted under VFR (visual flight rules) while the weather was below the VFR minima. This accident was classified as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) where an airworthy aircraft, under control of the pilot, un-intentionally collided with terrain." The area over which the helicopter was flying is dense forest.

The disinformation stands and it searches as a top result on SAA Technical.

There was more in the article that revealed how SAA will face ongoing turmoil as it tries to restructure. Sunday Independent also reported that insiders told the paper Voss started "purging" managers and replacing them with his associates from outside the country.

In fact, two managers have left SAA Technical since Vos joined and the unit has hired five black South African managers. But the disinformation about a purge is on social media and drives the recurring agenda that reform at state-owned enterprises is anti-black and hinges on pushing out black managers.

Same narrative

The same narrative is present in social media disinformation about Eskom and Transnet where the chairpersons Jabu Mabuza and Popo Molefe have faced serial campaigns of lies by remnant capture networks in those state-owned enterprises.

The strike at SAA has revealed how a similar network is operating there and one which will push against reform. At SAA Technical, a South African aviation expert who asked to remain anonymous told Fin24 that "SAA Technical is plagued by corruption. The rot had seeped in at all levels. In an arena difficult to traverse, aviation, people were put into office who were not qualified. Buddies and pals. Besides looting, (there were) incredible inefficiencies from people who do not know what to do," he said.

Disinformation damages reputation and what this month has revealed that it is now entrenched at SAA where scrupulous safety of the technical division is a vital part of its turnaround strategy.

The Sunday Independent told Fin24 that it stood by its story and said it believed that the aviation report had been doctored to protect those implicated including Voss. The newspaper also said it stood by its report that Voss was interfering with how job advertisements were framed and that he was engaged in a purge.

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