Bruce Whitfield: I took one of the last SAA flights - before the strike changes everything

Business Insider SA


Bruce Whitfield
  • It was business as usual on one of the last SAA flights out of Johannesburg ahead of a crippling strike.
  • Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and a delegation SA business people, who promoted the country to investors in New York, may struggle to find their way back.
  • The unions are right to be furious, but the protest comes too late.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

As talks between SAA and its biggest trades unions failed on Thursday, I took one of the last domestic flights out of OR Tambo International before the scheduled start of the industrial action at 0400 on Friday. At this stage, SAA has cancelled all local, regional and international flights for two days, but may need to take further action if talks over the next two days fail to reach resolution.

Flight SA377 is usually the last daily domestic flight out of ORT and departs at roughly the same time as short hop SA565 to Durban.

The airline cancelled flights before talks with unions were concluded and despite assurances late Wednesday that it would put contingencies in place to mitigate the worst effects of the action.

In among the passengers affected is Pravin Gordhan, the public enterprises minister (who is responsible for SAA) and a high-level delegation of business and public sector leaders who are in New York to convince American investors that South Africa is open for business.

They are due back in South Africa on Saturday on SA204, scheduled for departure from the US on Friday, but the flight is unlikely to happen.

Despite the airline cancelling all flights for 48 hours from Friday, the SAA app was still taking bookings on Thursday night as the airline scrambled to find alternatives for stranded customers.

SAA spokesman Tladi Tladi confirmed the airline was looking for alternatives for its customers and was working through its Star Alliance and other partnerships to get passengers back home.

Staff at the airport expressed disappointment that the strike was going ahead. On board, staff did not acknowledge the looming action.

It was business as usual. “Cabin crew arm the doors and cross-check....” - not a complaint or a mention of industrial action.

SAA is feeling the consequence of more than a decade of mismanagement and looting at the hands of increasingly inept boards and poor CEO choices.

It finally looked like it had a chance at recovery when telecoms professional Vuyani Jarana put up his hand to run it, but he quickly threw in the towel. Back then various unions took an unprecedented step to threaten strike action to demand the return of the boss, but there was no way he was going back.

On the day SAA advertised his job in September I happened to bump into him at a breakfast gathering and asked if he’d be applying to return. There was no risk of misinterpreting his response: “No.”

The unions are right to be furious that a fifth of SAA staff are at risk of losing their jobs. The airline has, literally, been run into the ground and is carrying debt of around R20-bn and is furiously scurrying around looking for R2bn in the next ten days to keep going.

It’s a disaster.

But the protest comes too late for it to serve any productive purpose at all. The horse has bolted and few options remain.

Trades unions should long ago have taken stronger action against a long succession of incompetent boards and management teams that created the problem they are railing against today.

Their current action is too little too late. Now unions have to decide whether they will accept the cuts and sacrifice up to 944 jobs or whether they are going to let the whole thing collapse - forcing a debt write off and the destruction of nearly 6,000 jobs.

They will be betraying their members if they force a company failure, but South Africa may thank them in the long run.

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