SAA is more than just a symbol of national pride
South African Airways is undisputedly a source of national pride.
It is the holder of the highly coveted international Skytrax “Best airline in Africa” award since 2002. In 2019 it also won the “Best airline staff in Africa”, “Best cabin crew in Africa”, “Best airline cabin cleanliness in Africa” and “Best business class lounge in Africa” Skytrax awards. Furthermore, it is the “Coolest domestic airline” according to a local newspaper survey.
There can be no doubt that the rank and file workers at SAA are giving us their all. They know that SAA does not only exist as a symbol of national pride; possessing a national airline is a developmental imperative.
Trade is an important enabler of development. The exchange of goods and services allows for the generation of revenue. It increases innovation and human capital accumulation. It compels the expansion of infrastructure. SAA makes trade possible by daily transporting large volumes of animals and goods (perishable, non-perishable, valuable and dangerous) within the country and abroad.
As Africa’s leading airfreight service provider, it transports an average of 111 000 tonnes of cargo annually, making it a meaningful contributor to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). It does not just enable trade through transporting cargo, it also transports almost 10 million passengers per annum, making economic activity possible and contributing significantly to tourism, which in turn aids job creation.
Some might argue that we do not need to own the airline to achieve these objectives. South Africa, however, because of our apartheid legacy, has geographical areas that are unequally developed.
If we are to grow our economy optimally and to generate the number of jobs required to absorb the unemployed and new entrants into the job market, then the potential of all economically viable areas of South Africa, have to be exploited fully.
It will however be a while before routes to those areas become profitable enough to attract privately owned airlines. A state owned airline will be obliged to service such routes, and in so doing stimulate local commercial activity, using cost-recovery pricing. Likewise, it can fly to global non-priority countries, which are of strategic significance to South Africa.
Given the importance of the airline, the frustration of SAA workers can be appreciated. They are pulling their weight. They are attracting award upon award. Yet the airline is a financial failure.
Oil price fluctuations aside, to a large degree it appears as if this failure can be attributed to the determination of politicians at the helm, to dispose of the entity. Accordingly, they appoint consultants upon consultants, to drive that agenda; rather than appointing persons with the ability to transform this national symbol of pride from a financial sink hole to the critical developmental enabler that it should be.
The ANC and its alliance partners appreciate the need for a national airline. This policy disjuncture between Party and government is inhibiting progress.
Once again, government has procured the services of a business rescue practitioner, Les Matuson, whose ideological persuasion is not necessarily susceptible to state retention of ownership.
The controversy however, is not Matuson; the controversy is that politicians, senior management and Board members appear to have failed to turn the entity into a going concern.
Given the billions that have gone into its constant “restructuring”; and given the billions that have gone into remunerating all of them, not to speak of the exorbitant amounts paid to the consultants; why have they not succeeded? Until we start holding those in power to account, these practices will just continue and will be repeated in other state owned enterprises.
South Africa is suffering from Commission of Inquiry fatigue. But we need a quiet, swift (maximum three months) commission of inquiry, with similar efficiency to the one that looked into state security, to determine why, since 1994, there have been successive failures at the strategic level of SAA. The commission should identify legislative impediments and make recommendations on how to strengthen the oversight roles of the shareholder department and Parliament. They should also identify those in leadership who were negligent in their responsibilities and recommend appropriate action to make such persons account, including seizure of their personal assets.
Public representatives and servants, as well as service providers appointed by them, will only start taking the hard-earned monies of tax payers seriously, once they are held personally liable for decision failures.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.