Troubled airline

2009-02-20 00:00

A NATIONAL embarrassment: that is how security expert Peter Gastrow describes South African Airways (SAA). For the second time in a month, some of its crew members have been detained at London’s Heathrow Airport after substantial amounts of cocaine were found in their luggage. One incident might be regarded as misfortune; a second clearly indicates a deeper problem.

This comes on top of the introduction of visas for many South Africans travelling to Britain. Their passports are now tainted as too many others have been acquired illegally and have fallen into the hands of dubious people. It all points to a pervasive culture of brazen criminality that is taking hold in South Africa. And the criminals are being assisted by corrupt officials and security personnel who have been placed in supposed positions of trust.

When Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel delivered his budget speech last week, there was audible discontent when he announced another massive subsidy to deal with the financial losses at SAA. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement have forced the CEO to take special leave pending an inquiry.

Why does the taxpayer have to bear such an enormous cost for aeroplanes to fly around displaying the country’s flag, especially when SAA’s staff bring it into disrepute? The airline is a sorry emblem of national malaise. Poor management, personal agendas, criminality and graft undermine the integrity not just of the company, but the whole country.

For a very long time there have been warnings that lax official systems, in particular on South Africa’s borders and at airports, make it an ideal staging point for international crime. Recent trafficking of drugs, probably sourced in South America, have proved the point precisely.

Swift and decisive action is required at two levels. SAA should be denationalised and sold off to operators who can run it as an efficient commercial concern. The country’s many security agencies need to take seriously South Africa’s obligations to the international community and recent damage to the tarnished national image. As the public is repeatedly reminded, it is well under 500 days to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

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