Members of the South African Cabin Crew Association and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa members picket at the SAA Airways Park in Kempton Park. Picture:  Themba Hadebe/AP
Members of the South African Cabin Crew Association and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa members picket at the SAA Airways Park in Kempton Park. Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

Unions missed the boat on SAA - the real battle has come and gone

By Kevin Ritchie Time of article published Nov 23, 2019

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Late yesterday, the SAA strike was finally over - a week after it began and for the workers settling for much what management had been offering in the first place.

It was, said the nation’s sage Jonathan Jansen, akin to the deckhands’ union fighting for better conditions of service as their members on the Titanic were starting to sink below the icy waters of the Atlantic.

Many have asked if we even need a national carrier, chief among them Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who rightfully asked why we subsidise something that is at best a national vanity project used by MPs, public servants commuting between Cape Town, Gauteng and/or their constituencies and a middle class that has a plethora of other options - which are far cheaper.

The unions wouldn’t see it that way; they’ve been blustering and posturing, but the truth is no one has really given them much of a second thought - because SAA is just not that critical to everyone’s existence, unlike say Eskom or the local water utility - or even wi-fi (which gets affected by long-term load shedding).

Thus far, the government has stood firm; it has to because if it can’t act against a cash-draining state-owned entity that none of us are really invested in, what chance is there when it has to start trimming the fat off the trumpeting elephants in the room?

There’s Eskom, there’s the public service, there’s the Passenger Rail Agency of SA too. A rail line service that isn’t just essential; it’s, ironically, what we need to use more of in terms of creating a green economy and reducing congestion.

But the same seeds of wilful neglect run through it (ignoring for a moment Lucky Montana and his oversized and overpriced Spanish trains). The Metro Plus, the “business class”, if you like, of the urban service, with its plush vinyl couches, was ripped and stabbed on the Cape Southern Line running the length of the Peninsula when I travelled on it this week. Yet, the packed Metro coaches with their hard plastic seats were pristine by comparison.

Not many people seemed to use Metro Plus, because it wasn’t worth either the effort or the price. It’s as apt a metaphor for the rail service and SAA as it is for the unions.

Irvin Jim hasn’t just backed the wrong horse here; he’s missed the boat entirely. He’s fighting for the rights of his members when the real battle should have been fought when Dudu Myeni was appointed by former president Jacob Zuma on the back of talents that were neither discernible nor measurable. She rewrote the sequel to the Wolf of Wall Street, asset stripping and rent seeking off the back of the so-called national asset.

Jim has woken up to huff and puff now that new management have come in to actually try to save it - and much of his members’ jobs. Instead, he has been pushing it into a terminal tail spin.

One day his members will rue the day they chose the Arthur Scargill of South African labour to lead them in their most desperate hour.

He is going to remembered as the Arthur Scargill of South African labour.

* Kevin Ritchie is a journalist and a former newspaper editor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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