Union officials claim CEO used racial slur — he calls allegation ‘a ridiculous lie’
Acting SAA boss Chris Smyth has been accused of calling trade unionists “f*cken k*****s” during a heated confrontation in which he had to lock himself in his office.
The airline’s chief executive officer is alleged to have used the slur — which he vehemently denies — against eight shop stewards of the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union who had demanded a meeting with him on Monday. His secretary, according to SAA, was forced to flee when union representatives tried to force their way into Smyth’s office.
The union has laid a charge of crimen injuria against Smyth with the police at OR Tambo international airport.
Smyth said yesterday the allegations against him were “criminal in nature”. He said it was a “ridiculous lie, and a malicious and deliberate fabrication”, adding that he was seeking legal advice.
But the chairman of Satawu in Gauteng, Ephraim Mphahlele, said Smyth had apologised to him for “reacting in the manner in which he did”. Mphahlele, who was one of the eight officials against whom the slur was allegedly made, said the shop stewards had asked for a meeting with Smyth to resolve a deadlock in talks with SAA management about a union demand that three senior executives of the airline be fired.
“We waited for the CEO [who was in a meeting] and later we were told to wait in a boardroom.
"Finally, we were called in to the CEO’s office but, just before we got in, he [Smyth] pointed a finger at us and called us ‘f*cken k*****s’,” Mphahlele alleged.
He said he tried to defuse the situation and “pleaded” with Smyth to “calm down”.
“Immediately afterwards, in a private meeting with me, he apologised for his behaviour,” Mphahlele said. Yesterday, in a statement released by the airline, an “outraged” Smyth said the altercation with the shop stewards was both “chaotic and volatile”.
He warned: “Unless this [allegation] is expressly withdrawn in writing, I will explore all legal avenues open to me, including laying criminal charges.”
He hit back with allegations of his own, claiming that the union officials “barged” into his office and “behaved in a disorderly fashion”.
Smyth said: “In response to the rowdiness of the situation, I shouted an instruction to the Satawu individuals to leave my office immediately. This was a chaotic situation which was created unnecessarily ... apart from loudly instructing the officials to leave, at no stage did I utter any racial insults to anybody.”
He said the move was an attempt by union officials to “sabotage relationships between Satawu and management”. He said he had written to the union’s general secretary, Randall Howard, to inform him of his members’ “unacceptable behaviour”.
Smyth said: “My secretary was so disturbed by the outburst that she left the office in fear for her personal safety.” In a letter sent to staff at the airline on Wednesday last week, Smyth explained how the union representatives attempted to force their way into his office.
“They initially refused to leave and I had to call for security before returning to my office. An official from human resources was sufficiently concerned about the situation that he advised me to lock my office. “The Satawu members then attempted unsuccessfully to force their way into my office.”
The union is now demanding that Smyth apologise in writing and called on the airline to distance itself from his alleged remarks.