Business Maverick


Numsa humbled by South African Airways management — and it can’t lie about it

Striking South African Airways workers protest at an entrance to Cape Town International Airport on 18 November 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The benefit of the failed strike action to the progressive tax-paying citizens is that Numsa will now approach the restructuring of Eskom much more sober and alive to the reality of the country in general. They will be the spoilt brats no longer!

Irvin Jim seems to be a good student of Fidel Castro. Naturally. Except, in 1957 Castro had the advantage of operating and fighting in the deep, remote jungle of eastern Cuba, inaccessible to the general public and the media, for them to gauge his performance on the battlefield.

Thus Castro’s own accounts of the execution of his rebellion against the corrupt and hated regime of Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista became the only version. The rebel Castro employed propaganda to more deadly effect than guns and bullets.

Using radio in particular, and well-choreographed radio interviews with newspaper correspondents from the US smuggled deep into the forests, Castro would lie through his teeth about the skirmishes his 82 men went through at the hands of Batista’s 35,000-strong Cuban forces. Many of the first battles the ragtag army fought in the forests of mountainous Pico Turquino and Las Coloradas in eastern Cuba, and in which it was thoroughly defeated, turned into great glorious revolutionary victories in Castro’s recorded accounts when they were broadcast through the airwaves of Radio Rebelde (Spanish for Radio Rebel), reaching as far as the capital Havana in the west of the island.

This had a devastating effect on Batista’s demoralised forces, who, feeling they were fighting a losing battle for a dictator they hated, gave up fighting and just melted away, letting Castro’s forces take Havana unopposed.

Unfortunately for Jim’s National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), their battles are fought in the transparency of broad daylight in the cities of our nation.

Citizens and journalists armed with the latest smart mobile phones are able, without any effort at all, to provide the real account of the situation on the ground at any given time. The “victory” that Numsa claims over South African Airways (SAA), where it scored a wage increase of 5.9%, is anything but victory. The workers, Numsa’s own members, are all poorer for it.

First, thinking union members must ask themselves: what value does the union bring for them?

After costing them eight days in unpaid wages in a strike that should never have happened, Numsa caved in and accepted the very same 5.9% increase it had been offered before the strike. In other words, the union cost its members a quarter of their monthly salary for absolutely no gain. Of course, that did not stop Jim from proclaiming this colossal loss as victory. A red lie!

Second, the implementation of that increase is highly conditional: it can only be implemented if and when SAA secures funds for working capital. The funds it hopes to secure is a R2-billion cash bailout from the government — to fund working capital. That would take the total cash bailouts SAA has received from the taxpayer, the very same Numsa members — to R59-billion over the past 23 years.

In agreeing to the increase, which it said will cost an additional R72-million a year, SAA effectively agreed to break the law — the Public Finance Management Act — by committing to an expense before it had any means to fund it.

Third, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has demanded SAA show initiative and give him a workable plan and reason why it should be given any more funds. Incurring unnecessary expenditure is unlikely to be reason enough to impress the finance minister to dole out more taxpayer funds to a sinking airline company that he knows should have been closed down long ago.

According to SAA, the strike cost it R52-million a day as it had to ground all its flights, which amounts to R416-million over the eight days. But that was actually a saving for the airline. Before the strike, SAA was losing much more money while its aircraft and crew were fully airborne.

Its last published annual financial report, for the year ended March 2017, showed SAA lost a net R5.56-billion for the year. The biggest expenditure on that is on the jet fuel it needs to fly middle-class people around the world. Poor citizens pay for that massive subsidy by forfeiting the services, such as working trains and clinics, they would get had the money not been wasted on their much-better-off flying compatriots.

While SAA has not been able to publish financial results for the past two years, the operations have deteriorated a lot further. Today it is totally bankrupt. It is safe to assume the loss has widened beyond that R5.56-billion-a-year of 2017.

Importantly, during the eight days that SAA was grounded by its own employees, not a single passenger failed to reach their intended destination. Sure, there were some delays and inconvenienced travellers, but everybody ended up pretty much where they needed to be at the end of their journey.

That just showed how redundant the state-owned airline and its staff are! A humbling experience, if there ever was one.

Now that Numsa and its ally, the SAA Cabin Crew Association, have shown all and sundry that it is possible to ground SAA while life carries on normally for the flying public, thinking people must ask themselves why on earth are the South African taxpayers burdened with the massive cost of keeping the waste that is SAA up in the air.

Surely, if Numsa wants to keep SAA paying salaries, from which it deducts 1% from its members, it can buy the whole business and do a better job than the government in running it?

Surely Numsa buying the company that employs and exists for the benefit of its members would allow it to practice its socialist utopia?

That may also have the added benefit of changing the fortunes of its workers’ party in the next general elections, and finally send Jim to Parliament, where he can legislate away taxpayers’ monies for the benefit of Numsa members?

Until that happens, and unlike Castro’s false narrations about his ragtag army’s performance in the eastern forests of Cuba, Numsa can accept its reality: a trade union that totally misread the tea leaves and was thus totally humbled in the battle of SAA.

The benefit of the recent strike action to the progressive tax-paying citizens is that Numsa will now approach the restructuring of Eskom much more sober and alive to the reality of the country in general. They are the spoilt brats no longer!

And unlike Castro in the forests of eastern Cuba, Numsa will not be able to lie about its fortunes as the restructuring war is being waged in the transparency of broad daylight. BM


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