THE DEATH OF AIR ZIMBABWE

It flew profitably through 23 years of United Nations-imposed sanctions. It carried on without a blip after black nationalist guerillas shot down two of its Viscounts in the late 1970s, the last years of white-ruled Rhodesia.

After independence in 1980, its name was changed from Air Rhodesia to Air Zimbabwe. It was comfortably in the black with 16 aircraft, and a reputation as a clever, durable little African airline. It has taken President Mugabe 31 years without war or economic sanctions to finally drive it into the ground.

The last Air Zimbabwe domestic flight was three weeks ago. Late last year it cancelled international flights after a Boeing 737 at Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo Airport and a Boeing 767 at Gatwick were impounded for unpaid services.

On Friday last week lawyers for the National Airways Worker's' Union and the Air Transport Union filed for the airline to be placed under judicial management. Court papers said they had not been paid since January 2009 and were owed US$ 35 million. Air Zimbabwe executives who asked not to be named said the company owed a total of US$160 million.

Among the many reluctant benefactors who bailed it out in emergencies is Nicholas van Hoogstraaten, the former London rack-renter who has recreated himself as one of Zimbabwe''s most influential businessmen. "The demise of Air Zimbabwe is a disgraceful waste of a valuable asset, which is now beyond redemption," he said.

The "disgrace" he refers to is the blundering mismanagement and greed Mr Mugabe and his cronies have visited upon every enterprise they have touched since he came to power in 1980.

From the outset, Mr Mugabe used Air Zimbabwe as his personal air taxi. The abuse was legendary. Passengers were ordered off their flights when he turned up at 30 minutes notice with a crowd of hangers-on. Or if they managed to keep their seats, they would be flown to wildly out-of-the way destinations to drop off the president. On one trip, he circumnavigated the globe.

Political appointments fill the senior executive positions, and relatives much of the rest. Air Zimbabwe has a staff of 1,400 where experts estimate 400 would be ample. Fares were kept unsustainably low, and charged in worthless Zimbabwe dollars until they were phased out in 2009.

It has no board of directors. The company is in the hands of a coterie of executives who, staff say, pay themselves US$20,000 a month and drive the latest Mercedes Benz models. "They are law unto themselves," said one. Early this month a long-unpaid pilot won a court order for the seizure of company property in lieu of his salary. The sheriff entered Air Zimbabwe headquarters and left with three of the limousines.

"It''s become the ZANU(PF) (Mr Mugabe's party) carrier," said a senior technician Each time the Mugabe "royal family" return from a trip abroad, a 10-tonne truck and several pick-ups can be seen to drive up to the aircraft''s hold to be loaded with the Mugabe's goods. Last year, Grace, the president''s wife, flew into a rage when her flight was late. Acting CEO Peter Chikumba presented her with US$10,000 "spending money" by way of an apology.

Since the government took control of the fabulously wealthy Marange diamond fields in the east of country, cabin staff say, pilots are regularly given small sealed parcels by Mrs Mugabe''s staff for personal delivery to Asian businessmen in the Far East. Just ahead of elections in 2008, an Air Zimbabwe plane flew tonnes of ZANU(PF) T-shirts from Beijing.

But as Air Zimbabwe (Pvt) Ltd crumbles, a new development is secretly unfolding. A plain white 150-seat Airbus A320 with French markings arrived at Harare airport 10 days ago and was quickly concealed in an Air Zimbabwe hangar. Company and transport ministry officials have been tight-lipped.

The plane is on loan from Sonangol, a Chinese company with enormous interests ranging through oil, air transport and diamonds, Air Zimbabwe administrators say. A larger Airbus 340 is soon to follow.

"It's a ministry of defence project," said one. "It can only be funded by diamonds. ZANU(PF) will not be without their own airline.

Jan Raath