A long list of applicants for the top job at SAA has been cut to 14 candidates.

The Department of Public Enterprises’ spokesman, Mayihlome Tshwete, said yesterday that a shortlist would be finalised next week.

Tshwete admitted that the list included individuals within SAA, but he could not give any names.

The post may not be filled by a well-known executive as the minister and his office held a view that “being a top-ranking executive does not mean the person will be able to lead SAA and pull the company around”.

Tshwete said that Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba was going to get tough on the national carrier and was going to ask the difficult questions from now on.

SAA has been making losses for a number of years. Last year it posted an operating loss of R1.31 billion, which was believed to have prompted Siza Mzimela’s departure from the top post. When Mzimela left, Vuyisile Kona held the fort as acting chief executive and an advertisement for the top office was published.

However, the board announced his suspension last week for allegedly contravening Public Finance Management Act rules on supply deals.

Tshwete said the biggest task for the person who would be appointed to the post would be to break the SAA pattern of repeatedly asking the government to bail it out of its financial troubles.

“It is not going to be an easy task but the department has committed its support to SAA and we’ve committed support as the whole state. That includes the Department of Tourism, the Treasury and other departments,” he said.

He said SAA would be making proposals for financial assistance to the point of sustainability. “The reality is the current financial situation of SAA is very dire,” he said, adding that as the department made interventions in the company, it did not want to see SAA operations being compromised further than what the current financial situation had done.

In October last year, the Treasury gave SAA a R5bn guarantee after it had put a R6bn recapitalisation package for the airline on hold in May.

Last month, SAA received a R550 million emergency loan from the Department of Public Enterprises and the Treasury to cover fuel costs, preventing the grounding of its flights days before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations.

SAA would have to present its fleet renewal strategy to the Treasury and Public Enterprises. Its business model would be re-examined before this support could be given.

“We can’t continue without addressing the fundamental issue first.” Tshwete said SAA had a habit of drawing up a turnaround strategy when it found itself in trouble, following the plan for a couple of months and then abandoning it when its situation stabilised. But he said this time, Gigaba would not have any of it.

He said the department had given SAA a directive to consolidate all those plans and present its implementation plan, noting that Gigaba would probe SAA and intervene if he felt it was being put at risk.

“We’ll support [SAA] but we expect results. The minister is now very vigilant when it comes to SAA matters,” he said.

Last week Gigaba vowed to have the new SAA chief executive in office next month.