Ferial Haffajee: Why Pravin Gordhan’s patriotism call to fly SAA flopped

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Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

Less than two years ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa sent the country into paroxysms of volunteerism with his speech in which he used Hugh Masekela’s song Thuma Mina (Send me) to get South Africans to put up their hands to make the country better.

It infected the mood and shifted it from the negativity bias of the administration of President Jacob Zuma to a positive mood. I don’t have numbers, but individuals and companies alike took action, supporting efforts like the SME Fund, established by members of the CEO Initiative, and public-private partnership the Youth Employment Service. There was a great deal more.

Fast forward to not even two years later and Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan tried a similar gambit on Sunday. The department put out a statement saying a recent wage strike by SAA had caused havoc at SAA, putting in peril its existence as a going, or flying, concern. Then, Gordhan added a rider: it was our patriotic duty to fly SAA.

Lead balloon

Other than for former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who flies SAA as a patriotic duty, the idea went down like a lead balloon. Gordhan was pilloried like a pilot who had lost his navigation apps.

Instead, a harder decision had to be made in the absence of simple goodwill. SAA is now in business rescue, where the hard-nosed actuaries, lawyers and sector specialists who run the BRP practices will make the tough decisions that politicians often can’t. It is a harbinger of different times, now that a sovereign credit rating downgrade is more than likely by Moody’s after February's budget review – and this week’s GDP numbers show that goodwill and a call to patriotism will no longer cut the mustard.

What had happened between the Thuma Mina speech and Gordhan’s appeal? The reform momentum of the post-Zuma administration is lost and an economy near recession has meaningful impacts in the life of people who may be potential SAA passengers.

To go back a little to understand Gordhan’s call, it’s important to understand a little of his story.

The minister has not always been the czar of public enterprises. He was a pharmacist who eschewed the petit bourgeoisie life this could have earned him, working in under-serviced group areas in apartheid South Africa.

Instead, he chose a life of struggle and one of service in which he worked closely with then ANC underground cadre Jacob Zuma.

It's the reason Zuma made him finance minister. Then, faced with a choice of loyalty (to a political senior) and service to the public, he chose service again, becoming the biggest pain in the butt to Zuma when he stopped a series of mad-hatter patronage deals, like the nuclear plan to buy a fleet of power stations.

In that period, Gordhan was de facto leader of the movement against state capture, after Zuma fired him in exasperation. In all his speeches of that time, Gordhan issued calls to service to get South Africans into the mode of active citizenship.

They worked.

He was trying the same gambit on Sunday night. It flopped. And here’s why I think it did.

There is no sense that there is a growing service ethic within the state for its people. The era of reform is not paying off, while public funds are squandered as if there is no tomorrow, with no care and consequence. Last month, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu announced that government's irregular expenditure had ballooned to R62bn - precious public funds wasted. He noted that state-owned enterprises had received their worst audit outcomes ever.

We who use public services know this: I don’t know about you, but the decline in service is palpable. Take electricity. My tariffs are about 25% higher since Ramaphosa took office and put Gordhan in charge of Eskom; and service is worse than ever, with load-shedding now a bankable part of life.

Best score: taking money

About the only thing that works efficiently and with demonstrable progress after the decimation of the state capture years is SARS: or, all that is government is really good at, in my experience, is taking money from us.

And I wonder if this is your story too. Economic decline is clear. My circles experience retrenchments, feel the pain of joblessness and after-tax incomes that don’t cover the swelling cost of living more than I have seen in the past 20 years.

We all know that while official inflation may be 3.7%, in reality, the basket of goods of life is getting more expensive more quickly.

Then, for Gordhan to ask that those of us who do fly for work, to do so on SAA, which is demonstrably more expensive than other airlines operating here, was simply a bridge too far.

It felt like South Africans had reached a point to invert JFK’s famous call to service: "Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you."

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