Ethiopian Aviation Holding Group chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam says the holding would consider taking a stake in South African Airways (SA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) should that carrier's sole shareholder, the South African government - put shares up for sale.

Technically bankrupt and surviving off state-backed guarantees, SAA has become a millstone around the South African government's neck given it has failed to turn a profit in the past eight years and has been racked with allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

“We are interested in supporting South African Airways,” he told Bloomberg in an interview in Addis Ababa last week. If South Africa asked Ethiopian to buy a stake, “we would consider it,” Gebremariam said.

Given the airline's worsening outlook and growing debt burden, estimated at around USD1.3 billion, the ANC-led government may have to eventually consider revising existing South African law which, at present, caps foreign ownership of locally-flagged airlines at 25%. In addition, some form of debt relief may have to be undertaken in order for willing investors to come forward.

For its part, Ethiopian already has active subsidiaries across Southern Africa including in Malawi (via a 49% stake in Malawi Airlines (3W, Lilongwe)) and in Mozambique (via the wholly-owned Ethiopian Mozambique Airlines (Beira)). It also has a 45% stake in Zambia Airways (Lusaka), a Zambian government-owned start-up whose launch has been repeatedly delayed, and has been linked to Air Zimbabwe (UM, Harare Int'l) although no formal commitments let alone agreements have yet been announced.