Liberate our skies to boost the economy


Unathi Henama

The Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula visited the crime riddled OR Tambo International Airport on Monday, 10 July.

Minister Mbalula was accompanied by State Security Minister David Mahlobo‚ Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina and Gauteng MEC for Security Safety Sizakela Nkosi-Malobane.

OR Tambo is the most important aviation port of entry and it is the regional hub for Southern Africa. It is the most important port of entry for millions of tourists that visit South Africa. Johannesburg International is the busiest airport on the continent and more often the connector hub of choice for travel to other parts of South Africa – but crime has become rampant.

Crime in and around South Africa's busiest airport is getting out of hand as the highway opposite OR Tambo International (ORTIA) was closed due to an attempted cargo robbery shoot-out recently.

Mbalula says corruption and collusion are behind crimes at the airport and now all staff and security will be vetted. Alleged spotters working in the airport to identify travellers with high-value bags or goods are following customers home to rob them.

"Airport spotters" are putting SA's lucrative travel and tourism industry at risk, damaging the reputation of ORTIA, a national key point.

The airport has been in the headlines following several incidents this year, such as the March robbery, where more than R20 million was stolen by men dressed as police officers. This act reduced the public’s trust in the police force and the crime pandemic facing South Africa.

The rampant crime around OR Tambo is a reflection of the institutionalised crime that is a daily reality for all South Africans, both rich and poor. Crime seems to be the only tangible democratic dividend and the World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report always identifies low levels of personal safety and security, dampening the growth of tourism in South Africa.

Crime has become a form of taxation for businesses, as they spend a disproportionate amount of money on security, instead of investing in the growth of the business. Crime has limited the growth of townships because of the perception that it’s unsafe. What happened at Sakhumzi in January and the continued mugging of patrons using Gauteng number plates remain the untold stories associated with the popular Cape Town shisa nyana, KwaMzoli.

The Minister of Finance, Malusi Gigaba mentioned during the ANC Policy Conference that as part of the strategies to grow tourism, the runway of ORTIA would have to be expanded to increase tourist arrivals. This is a step in the right direction, but during such times, we must be more radical.

This means that the Wonderboom National Airport in Pretoria must be expanded so that it can have international airport status, so that it can receive international flight traffic. Lanseria International Airport has not reached its full potential either and must be liberated to receive international flights such as OR Tambo, so that it can assist tourism growth.

Airports act as excellent growth points that lead to investment growth and it has the social benefit for fast transportation which is important for commerce and industry. There are hundreds of municipal owned airports that can be used for unlocking aviation traffic for smaller airlines and this can be another avenue for igniting the declining economies, possibly using charter flights.

South Africa remains a migratory society between the urban centres and the rural hinterlands, and the migratory patterns occurs between places like Cape Town and the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and the rest of the country.

The majority of these trips take place by road, whilst aviation could cut travelling time to lower costs, if the local government sphere works with aviation generally and low cost carriers specifically.

Today, the costs on an airline ticket on the tourism triangle of Cape Town-Durban-Johannesburg remain low because of the low cost carriers such as, Mango, FlySafair, Cemair and Blue Crane. Tourism in order to succeed requires a collaborative effort where the state creates an enabling environment, whilst the private sector creates tourism jobs and drives the tourism economy, through entrepreneurship.

Tourism is the new gold as it creates more labour intensive jobs than any other sector, and year on year growth is 13%. While 13% economic growth remains impressive but it’s an under-achievement, considering South Africa’s potential.

Liberating tourism to create millions of jobs immediately can be achieved if the skies are liberated and safety and security becomes a dividend for locals and tourists. Poverty and unemployment remain the biggest challenges facing South Africa and tourism has all the answers if only it can be supported. Aviation is a force for good in driving tourism growth.

- Unathi Sonwabile Henama teaches tourism at the Tshwane University of Technology and writes in his personal capacity.
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