I’m with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni that South African Airways is a vanity that our near-bankrupt country can’t afford. But if the government has decided that our national self-esteem is somehow tied up with having an airline, then why are workers the only ones going to make the sacrifice to keep it flying?
SAA is on the verge of a nasty strike after its acting CEO Zuks Ramasia announced earlier in the week that it may need to chop up to one in five workers. Unions are up in arms, with both yellow-bib and the cabin crew workers threatening the "mother of all strikes" on Friday. Its pilots, meanwhile, have also threatened to strike if the government does not resolve the airline's restructuring plan.
I hardly fly SAA any longer because it’s too expensive, and a lack of investment in online bookings means FlySafair and others are faster and cheaper options. But when you do use the national carrier, you can’t fault the staff. Impeccably polite, I often find SAA check-in staff far better trained and more service-oriented than Comair, which bills itself as customer-focused but often is not.
With better management, SAA is more punctual than it has been in years. The staff want to do well.
Throughout the Marie Antoinette-like era when former president Jacob Zuma put the manager of his personal charity, Dudu Myeni, in charge of the flag carrier, the staff were canaries in the coal mine. They told of how tenders were being diverted and of how Myeni was bringing in her own people to push funds and contracts to her cronies. Her diva-like behaviour on and off planes was a legend. Flowing about in kaftans, she bullied and pushed and tried to get contracts cancelled to give to colleagues.
The former head of treasury at SAA, Cynthia Stimpel, is writing a book about that era and it may answer many questions about how the airline came to be where it is today.
The price is now being paid. Myeni, who is facing delinquent director proceedings initiated by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, and her appointees are alleged to have connived on everything from fleet leasing arrangements, to catering and fuel contracts, and even tried to interfere in apron services. Bidvest blew the whistle on how Myeni and another board member tried to shake them down and out of their aviation services contracts if they were not cut in.
It was real banana republic stuff. And the era explains why SAA is out of money and relying on the public purse. Corrupt contracts were allegedly struck at rates often far exceeding market with profits used to pay backhanders.
Yet Myeni is holed up somewhere safe. Her job is not on the line. Her income is secure. Her family is not threatened by the job loss of a breadwinner. Neither is Zuma’s.
But hundreds of workers could now lose their jobs. SAA should instead be slicing out the management that allowed the looting to happen, many of whom are appointees from the Myeni era. It should be cutting everybody employed or in charge of procurement.
The reform and restructuring of state-owned companies is not possible without justice. It would be easier for the flag carrier's new managers to make the changes they need to if Myeni were on trial with the companies who won contracts by means both unfair and foul. It would also be easier if Zuma was not allowed to play fast and loose with the judicial commission of inquiry - where he has refused to appear this week due to illness – instead tweeting about this and that.