Business, Media, Politics

Acsa’s Hlahla and how not to talk to an angry public

By Andy Rice 9 July 2010

There’s some competition for the 2010 “Worst media move of the year award”. There’s Julius Malema’s “bloody agents” tirade, Sepp Blatter’s let’s-arrest-good-looking-girls-in-mini-skirts moment and, of course, “don’t touch me on my studio”. Now the head of Acsa, Monhla Hlahla, joins this esteemed group.

To be fair, spinning your way out of a mess caused by a bunch of VIPs who refused to move their executive jets from King Shaka Airport on Wednesday night, costing the non-VIP working public the chance to watch a World Cup semi-final was always going to be difficult. That’s why it should have been left to a professional.

But not our Hlahla. Oh no, she waded in, feet in mouth and all. And how. Her first mistake was to answer the phone. But once she had, she should have said no to 702’s John Robbie. She should have realised that one of the golden rules of spin is to speak with one voice. And as Bongani Maseko had already done a pretty good job, she should have left it with him. Oh, by the way, talking of Maseko, it is possible that spinning ability is genetic. But she’s the boss, and on the wireless she went.

Her second mistake was to claim the problems were being “over-exaggerated”, as clumsy English as it may be. But in these fights, the truth really doesn’t matter. Facts are often among the first casualties when things like this happen. And when you put it like that, all that happens is that you get people’s backs up. Robbie (he prefers to be called John) then did what any commercial radio talkshow host would do. He went for her. Politely, of course. Like all good lawyers (they’re the same profession by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed) he used the facts. “We’ve been told this was caused by VIPs who wouldn’t move their planes?” he asked.

Then it happened. The spinning mistake of 2010. “Yes, but you know John, we can’t say our customers are wrong, that would be against African culture.”

Take a moment – let that sink in.

African culture. It means you can’t say customers are wrong.

That’s funny, because for the rest of us, if we park for 30 seconds too long at OR Tambo’s domestic departures terminal, we fear a gun to our head from a man in a police uniform.  Try telling him you’re a customer. Or when the parking ticket machine asks you for a month’s salary. Try talking back to that.

It was arrogance of the highest order. Hlahla is certainly not stupid, but boy, did she misjudge the situation.

Misjudgement was clearly the order of the day at Durban’s new King Shaka Airport earlier. What seems to have happened is that they landed more private jets than they expected. Now, you have to file a flight plan. And they do have the right to refuse you permission. So something got away from someone somewhere. In fact, it seems likely that Acsa simply presumed the jets would fly to the old Durban International Airport and park there. Perfectly good reasoning. Except that that airport has been de-commissioned. Which means insurance won’t cover planes landing there. Which means no one would go there – especially not such expensive aircraft. It’s a great example of people just not thinking far enough ahead.

These situations are like a marriage. It doesn’t matter who’s wrong and who’s right, it matters only that the man says these two words; “Sorry, wrong”. That means he was wrong and he’s sorry. It works. The media will always win, regardless of what actually happened. Hlahla forgot that rule of spinning.

The last rule she forgot was one common to spinners, and husbands. It’s this, “Once you’re in trouble, stop digging”. But no, she gaily continued with, “You know John that during the World Cup, Fifa gets priority”. Well that explains how two planes with the call signs “Fifa One” and “Fifa Two” were given clearance in double-quick time then.

The truth is that this sorry episode reveals that for Acsa, which is owned by us through the government, treats some people as more equal than others. This is not really about Fifa, it’s about the inability of Acsa, through Hlahla, to say no to someone she sees as important. And before you ask, while the President might have landed there, it’s also possible he went through Durban International as that is being used by the Air Force and thus his VIP-ness is not really an issue here.

But Hlahla has already proved that for her politics trumps pragmatism. The old airport was closed only at her insistence. When Comair wanted to buy the thing, she refused them permission. It was handed over to the Air Force with undue haste. Basically, it was government giving a piece of land to government. But this is the same company that’s been making profits of more than a billion rand, yes, billion, and handing that straight to government. And then demanding the airlines pick up the tab for the new airport. That was R7 billion.

Of course, the other question is, if this brand new airport is full now, what will it be like in a few years’ time. Like say, during the Olympics.

Hlahla has had a good run at Acsa, no planes have arrived on the ground unexpectedly, things have run on time, kind of, and more importantly for government, the company’s made buckets of cash. But she has showed her true colours this week. She should be cleared for departure.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

PS. As this article was about to be published, Hlahla finally apologised on John Robbie Show saying Acsa would spend R400,000 to compensate the aggrieved passengers. Let’s see, people who lost tens of thousands of rands, will now get less than R600 back for missing the game of their lives. And did we mention that Acsa made a billion rand in profit?

Photo: A fan waits for the start of a 2010 World Cup semi-final soccer match between Spain and Germany at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban July 7, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh


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