There is a story, told with conviction by those who claim to have first-hand knowledge of it, about how one of the wives of a former president turned up at an airport in a coastal city and demanded to get on a flight, without a ticket.
When this wife, whose identity and that of her polygamous husband shall not be revealed because the story has not been properly verified, was told that things didn’t work that way, she flipped.
She told those who were politely interacting with her that, as the president’s wife, she was entitled to fly on his airline anytime she wished.
Anyway, the polite people she was haranguing remained calm and respectfully took her to a holding area while arrangements were made with the husband’s office to book a ticket.
Once the ticket was issued, she was guided by the helpful people she had been verbally abusing through to her flight from the coastal city to join her husband in the capital.
Whether one believes this story or not, it is emblematic of how the national airline and its ancillaries were treated by those who were in power or in proximity to power during the wasted decade.
Like many other state entities, it was a bottomless gold mine to be plundered at will without a care for its health and longevity.
The eye-popping stories that have come out of the various commissions of inquiry, parliamentary appearances, the Dudu Myeni delinquency case and media coverage have revealed how the soldiers of plunder were running amok.
Even the committed work of professional chief executive officers who came with big ambitions and concrete plans to turn the airline around could not overcome the tide.
SAA was doomed to collapse.
The state of SAA today belies what its website proclaims.
There, it boasts that “we have become a global airline whose excellence ... has been built on a dedication to excellence and embracing innovation. Becoming the best airline in Africa does not happen overnight. We have more than 80 years of excellence and innovation to draw on.”
It says that its mission is “to deliver commercially sustainable world-class air passenger and aviation services in South Africa, the continent and to our tourism and trading partners.”
Last week, not long after it had cancelled a whole lot of other routes to save money, the airline pulled out of most domestic routes.
For the foreseeable future, SAA will not be able to take you to Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London.
The only major South African cities it will service are Johannesburg and Cape Town.
So much for the ANC national executive committee’s decision that “SAA should be retained as a national airline, which will require substantial restructuring. Cabinet should make the operational decisions needed to achieve that aim.”
Expanding on this, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule told a media briefing that “we will still be flying the South African flag. Government will deal with details.”
Just two weeks after this decision, which flew in the face of all available evidence and reality on the ground, SAA is only able to fly its flag between two cities and on a number of international routes.
That is the footprint of a modest start-up.
The troubled airline is a mirror of the decline of South Africa during the decade of “everything goes”.
And the reluctance or inability to fix it mirrors the same approach to setting the country right.
There has been a surfeit of plans to put the airline on a sustainable path to recovery, but they have remained just that – plans.
There has also been no shortage of plans to kick-start economic growth and stimulate employment, but, just like the airline, they have faltered soon after a rah-rah public launch was made.
When it comes to advice and expertise, government has received plenty of wisdom about how to stop the airline from being a drain on the fiscus.
Admittedly, some of this advice has come from self-interested individuals, but most of it is so self-evident that you do not need to owe the adviser anything.
Similarly, the country gets plenty of tips from within and outside the country about some basic steps that are required to get our engine purring.
Ideological suspicion and inertia have seen to it that our country is the place where good advice goes to die.
On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa will stand before an expectant nation that hopes he will tell us something practical about how we will get out of the rut we are in.
He need not dance to anybody’s tune, he just needs to take the obvious steps that will unlock this country’s potential.
The crash of SAA was avoidable, even after all the damage done during the wasted decade.
But we can survive that and live.
The crash of South Africa will be another story altogether.