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Guardians of the sky

South Africa’s aviation industry has proudly maintained a zero-accident record in commercial airline flights for more than 30 years. Standing at the forefront of this achievement is the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), which is continually setting a benchmark in good governance and operational excellence.

In October last year, various airlines opted to keep 46 planes grounded. The precautionary grounding followed an inspection by the SACAA, which had issued the aircraft with prohibition orders after several non-compliance issues had been found. This is part and parcel of the operations of the SACAA, which has been safeguarding aviation since 1998.

Recognising the importance of the aviation industry

Poppy Khoza heads the SACAA as Director of Civil Aviation. She says the Authority is committed to protecting one of South Africa’s most important economic assets.

“Not only is the air transport network the heartbeat of the economy, providing the interconnectivity necessary for the flourishing of various trades and industries, it also provides direct and indirect benefits for various downstream sectors. In essence, civil aviation contributes to the stimulation of economic growth, connecting people, cultures and businesses across the globe. It also contributes to job creation and stimulating tourism.”

Khoza explains that the aviation industry is intricate and highly technical, requiring consistent monitoring and regulation. A number of risks need to be protected against to ensure the effective running of the aviation industry.

“This is a cross-border industry where risks can easily and obliviously be transferred from one country to the next. Examples include the inability to adequately regulate air transport activities and facilities that could lead to, for example, the spread of communicable diseases through air travel, or other safety and security risks and tragedies often witnessed in other parts of the world.”

Khoza adds that in order to achieve accident-free landings, the SACAA has to ensure that all operators are adhering to regulations.

“In order to achieve this requirement and expectation, aviation permit holders, whether they are licensed individuals or operators, must always comply with the applicable aviation safety and security regulations, which are derived from international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a specialised agency of the United Nations tasked with managing civil aviation activities across the world.”

Award-winning excellence

The SACAA employs more than 500 staff across a number of disciplines, ranging from aviation safety and security, to licensing, administration, communication, legal and medical. Heading up this staff complement, Khoza has raked in numerous leadership accolades since she took over the reins as the first African woman director of the SACAA in 2013. Accolades include Top Empowered Public Service Leader and Top Empowered Business Leader at the prestigious Oliver Top Empowerment Awards.

Under her leadership, the SACAA has also been recognised as one of the top public service organisations in South Africa and the top civil aviation authority on the continent.

“This remarkable performance should not be celebrated in isolation, because the SACAA’s objectives are aligned to those of the Department of Transport, which are, in turn, tied to the National Development Plan Vision 2030. Ultimately, the SACAA’s achievements translate into South Africa’s success,” Khoza says.

In addition, the SACAA has proven to be a sterling example of upholding good governance, securing an unqualified audit opinion for the past six years.

The Authority has intensified its focus on four key pillars, namely: ethical culture; good performance; effective control and legitimacy.

“The SACAA has an unwavering commitment to ethical conduct. In the past five years we managed to deliver 100 percent of all targets set in the Annual Performance Plan, signed by the Minister of Transport. This is most important, because a performance culture is entrenched across all levels within the organisation,” Khoza points out.

Also integral to the organisation’s success is the intense focus it places on employee wellbeing.

“The SACAA continues to place emphasis on looking after the wellbeing, career aspirations, and talent development of its employees. Moreover, the culture of the organisation remains a key focus.”

To foster this culture, the SACAA recently launched the Cultural Harmonisation programme, which focuses on leadership, client-centricity, performance excellence, empowerment, collaboration, communication, ethics and governance.

In addition, staff undergo training yearly to hone their expertise and keep their skills relevant. The SACAA’s entire management team also engages in leadership development programmes to create a responsible and accountable leadership culture in the organisation.

“We have strengthened leadership to the extent that we have had a full complement of executives since 2015 and when there is a vacancy in key positions, we fill them as urgently as possible, for the sake of business continuity,” Khoza says.

The organisation has also won awards for the diversity of its staff complement.

“The SACAA embraces diversity and in that regard we have a transformed organisation with competent and skilled individuals. In terms of gender we have 49 percent females and 51 percent males, and in the executive management team we have 50 percent females.”

Taking the necessary actions

One of SACAA’s mantras is to “regulate the aviation industry firmly and fairly with no form of any fear, or favour”. The grounding of planes last year was not only an example of this, but also of SACAA’s overall operational mandate.

“Consistent with its mandate, the role of the SACAA is to safeguard lives by ensuring compliance with civil aviation safety and security regulations by all concerned role-players. The expectation from the SACAA is that any identified non-compliances must always be satisfactorily addressed. If an operator or individual is unable to comply, licence or permit privileges may be withdrawn by the SACAA if necessary, and as a last resort to ensure compliance and preserve lives,” Khoza says.

After the prohibition orders were placed on airlines, South African Airways Technical, the primary aircraft maintenance organisation in the country, submitted a corrective action plan to deal with the issues of non-compliance from operators, which was approved by the SACAA.

Aircraft operators then took precautionary measures, ‘self-grounding’ its entire fleets to conduct verifications that its aircraft were safe to fly.

“As the vanguard of aviation safety and security, we appreciate the seriousness with which the airlines have approached this matter.

“A responsible and responsive industry is what we expect, and it is our belief that if operators are able to voluntarily self-correct, this approach will help in continuing to uphold South Africa’s remarkable record pertaining to the safety and security of our civil aviation operations,” Khoza explains.

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