South African national carrier South African Airways (SAA) that disappeared from the skies amid Covid-19, stashed away like an ugly failed duckling, emerging once more in 2021, is gradually making a recovery.
Still not so dominant, and by far surpassed by Ethiopian Airways that covers the length and breadth of the airport at Bole and many airports in Africa, SAA is making a steady return. Last week I spent two days in Windhoek, Namibia, where I was invited through GIZ for the equality week.
Upon arrival at the International Departures at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, I was welcomed with broad smiles by the SAA Business Lounge staff. We exchanged pleasantries and reminisced about how SAA vanished from the skies, but is now confidently back. At that I was ushered in the SAA Business Lounge, which was teaming with guests. This reminded me of pre-Covid days when SAA carried the flag of the nation.
The staff were very friendly and I got so carried away that I forgot that I was supposed to have boarded at the latest by 8:30am on a SAA flight to Namibia. By the time I left my seat to check the boarding time the gates were closed. All hell had broken loose.
I rushed to the reception, in a state of disbelief, pinching myself to check that this was actually true, that the unbelievable had occurred, and the gates were closed. Not only had the gates been closed, but the flight was already airborne.
I was so frustrated and cross with myself knowing that I should have paid more attention.
However, all was not lost. Coming to save the day were the ladies at the SAA lounge, who took charge of the situation. Pretty and Lebo connected me to the next flight and that having been done, asked me whether I wanted to go online and process the payment.
Being in a bit of a state, I insisted that I needed to go back to ticketing, which meant I would have to leave the International Departures, exit and come back via all the security checks and passport control again. My new flight was booked for 3pm and I insisted this was the best course of action. The lounge staff sort of gave up on me, and I just asked if I could leave my bag, as I was set on this course of action.
However, this is when Daicy, the boss, took over and insisted that I should sit down and relax and let the team take care of everything. She called and arranged everything. All I had to do was pay the extra rands for a bump up to business class as the afternoon economy class was fully booked.
Daicy helped me with all the arrangements. Waiting for my new flight I had a delicious breakfast, while watching more people teeming into the lounge. Darrin, one of the SAA lounge staff, kept checking in with me to make sure I did not miss my next flight.
Looking back to the day the tail of the national carrier was launched, I remember the excitement and pride of a crew member when he saw the tail of the aircraft with the SAA branding. That defined how deep the SAA brand was.
Today, after my experience with the SAA staff, I am confident that the brand is bound to bounce back and make SAA great again.
However, SAA has been on one hectic turnaround to recovery. We must keep in mind all the livelihoods that have been lost. At one point it was nearly the end of the airline. Uncertainty at its survival pulsated and you could almost touch it with your hands. Only a thin veneer of confidence was left after all it had been through.
SAA’s finances were plundered amid State Capture and then despite all efforts to get it back on the runway to profitability, Covid hit and aviation ground to a halt, leaving the sector flattened.
The Zondo Commission gave us a multidimensional picture of what the feeding trough for the pigs looked like at state-owned enterprises. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that South Africa has learnt anything from that period of deep rot in the state. In the words of Zondo, a state capture deja vu is in the making.
However, SAA is now on the flight to recovery, greatly assisted by its friendly staff.
I actually enjoyed the self-imposed lay-off I had at OR to relish the excellent treatment that kept on coming and which gave me hope.
This might be a key lesson for the remaking of South Africa, whose wounds of corruption Zondo warned us are likely to go septic.
Perhaps it is Eskom’s unabated load shedding, which makes us as South Africans bleak and unable to believe that recovery of the country is possible.
To stop us from this demise, may we raise our heads to the sky and see inspiration and comfort if it is possible given serious concerns around the sell of of state assets.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.