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FM Edition:

Finally, we have a price! The disastrous combination that is SA Airways (SAA) chair Dudu Myeni and President Jacob Zuma has cost SA the remarkable sum of R12.4bn in operational losses and bailouts in the past three years. Throw in about R14bn of guarantees over two decades, and you begin to get a sense of the scale of the damage.

This, of course, is money that is being flushed down the long and winding drain that is SAA.

Last year, the airline made a net loss of R1.8bn, after a R5.6bn loss the previous year.

Then finance minister Pravin Gordhan was strong-armed into giving SAA another R5bn in guarantees — exactly the wrong sort of reward for years of looting and haphazard stewardship of the airline.

Of course, the one constant presence throughout the past few years — years in which the airline was burning cash and suspending executives almost every day — was Myeni, comfortably ensconced in the chair.

If we extend the period beyond simply Myeni’s tenure, the picture looks even worse. In all, including the operational losses and R14bn in bailouts the airline has been gifted since 1996, it emerges that R26bn has been sucked up by the airline — cash that the country could surely have used to build the "better life for all" that the politicians have promised.

Over those two lost decades, SAA managed to turn a profit in only two years. Even then, in one of those two rare instances, SAA only made a paper profit, based on a technicality, after it managed to convince aircraft maker Airbus to reinstate a deposit that it had paid for aircraft but had forfeited after a bungled order.

Contrast that with the magnificent performance of the JSE-listed Comair, also published last week, which provides as eloquent an argument against state ownership as you’ll find anywhere.

Comair, which runs kulula and British Airways flights in Southern Africa, had a poor year by its standards. But even then, the outcome could not have been more different.

Competing against the protected SAA and its subsidiaries, Comair grew revenue only 1% in the year to the end of June. But cash generated by Comair’s operations jumped R212m to reach R1.1bn. Net profit dropped 12%, but it still made R193m.

Comair not only paid R102m in taxes — money that government has ironically deployed to support its competitors, SAA, Mango and SA Express — but it also paid R51.6m in dividends to investors (11c/share). And they’ll pay tax on that too.

Making money, and paying it over to investors in dividends and to government in taxes, is something Comair has been doing since it was founded just after World War 2.

In contrast, the term "profit" doesn’t even seem to feature in the lexicon of the state-owned cash-drain in the sky.

There have at least been some efforts to rescue other state-owned companies after years of really horrendous management.

Over at the Post Office, former banker Mark Barnes has jumped in to try salvage what’s left of the entity. But after years of chronic mismanagement, there’s a lot to unravel and fix.

But what is worse is that government still doesn’t appear to have learnt its lesson. It has retained and even appointed compromised or awful leadership at entitles like the SA Broadcasting Corp, arms company Denel, power utility Eskom and numerous others.

But perhaps you can’t expect too much else from politicians, who make decisions based on who they like and who supports them rather than for the sustainability of the business.

This is why companies like Comair will trump their state-owned rivals every time — even when they’re competing against state-subsidised firms.

For taxpayers, of course, it’s a calamity. Looked at from above, SA is flying head first into a financial disaster that will take many generations to fix.