Unbridled access to soaking the taxpayer the makings of disaster
NO DOUBT THABO (“informed by the imperative”) Mbeki would be among those reluctant to see the privatisation of SA Airways, as he has lifetime rights to a business class seat (only one?) to anywhere and no longer has automatic access to the presidential Boeing Business Jet. Trade unions might also object, as the State is usually less intransigent than private shareholders who lack access to the bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money.
It would seem that, as a matter of principle, the State has no profound objection to the private sector running SAA, or at least having a large stake in doing so, as it did take in the late Swissair as a partner, a deal undone by the bankruptcy of the Swiss.
SAA has been an enormous drain on the fiscus. We can’t seem to find anyone who can manage it efficiently, even when we employ some obscure American who, after a couple of years of the high life at our expense, soaked us for a quarter of a billion rand – more money than he had made collectively in his entire career.
Soccer, it seems, is run on the same lines as SAA, with some (white) Brazilian bragging he’ll make in 30 months here what it would take him to earn in 30 years in his home country. And he can’t speak English or any other language understood by his Bafana Bafana players. As they say, aloota continua. To return to the travails of SAA: let it be granted that there have been elements – such as the oil price and the departure of technical and other staff for political reasons – that have been beyond its control. However, in a nation like ours that’s so short of expert managerial staff surely it would make sense, in the absence of privatisation, for the management of SAA to be outsourced by its shareholder, the Government?
What does Government know about running an airline? As much as I do about brain surgery is the answer. And one suspects that new Public Enterprises Minister Brigitte Mabandla, who was taken to task by Judge Chris Nicholson for interfering in the affairs of the National Prosecuting Authority, doesn’t know any more than I do.
Similarly, Khaya Ngqula, CEO of SAA, brought to his position zero knowledge of or expertise in the business. He’s learning on the job at our expense and he continues to hold his hand out to us for more and more billions to keep the airline flying.
A predictable result of all of this vast and wasteful expenditure has been the inability of the private sector (with exceptions) to compete and we have thus seen private operators such as Flitestar, Sun Air and Nationwide all fail in the face of taxpayer-funded competition, including the newish Mango operation.
Comair, which runs kulula.com, survives and recently announced its 63rd successive year of operational profits. Surely it would make sense for Government to tap into this homegrown reservoir of experience and talent to enable SA to build a financially viable and efficient national carrier? Perhaps Mabandla, unhindered by the rivals and jealousies of the past, can knock some heads together and produce sanity and excellence out of mayhem. Competition is important, but when one of the players has apparently unlimited access to soak the taxpayer with no questions asked then we have the makings of disaster.
Further, as is the case here, when the State player has consistently demonstrated its inability to perform, it makes no sense to persevere when other options are available. It was Warren Buffett who said that running an airline was the single most difficult business he knew. If you accept that and take into account the success, for example, of Qantas against the steady decline in the number of state-owned airlines around the world then it makes sense to tap into the excellence available on our very doorstep.