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ORT: Not the gateway to Africa anyone wants

Stephen Chan, OBE, is a professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

If O.R. Tambo airport is the gateway to Africa, then heaven help Africa to take its place in the modern world.

I travel several times a year from London to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, and have been doing so for decades. I have flown SAA as an act of loyalty to the region – but I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m also going to try to avoid Oliver Tambo International, which has become a disaster of an airport, and which functions at the same level of efficiency as Khartoum International. Recent visits to Marrakech, Casablanca, Addis Ababa, Lusaka and Harare all involved airports that worked.

Addis worked like a dream. Oliver Tambo is a nightmare. How something so new can function like something so derelict is amazing. How it can be tolerated as something ‘normal’ betrays the sloppiness in service delivery that has spread all over South Africa. But South Africa is meant to be the gateway to the rest of Africa. People will be crying in despair at this gateway. And, as for South Africa being a member of the BRICS, the major airports in all the other BRICS countries make Oliver Tambo feel like a quagmire, a swamp; and make the hapless passenger feel like he is wading in a cesspool to get from Point A to Point B – where Point B exists only as a deliberate effort to slow down progress to Point C.

Let me describe a visit to South Africa from London Heathrow in August this year. I was flying SAA Business Class, some assurance (I thought) of a smooth journey.

I checked in a Heathrow Terminal 1, and that was straightforward. But then the Fast Track through security refused to recognise my SAA ticket. “You can’t use Fast Track. SAA hasn’t paid its Fast Track bills.” So I grumpily joined the normal (much longer) security queue and finally reached the Star Alliance lounge. SAA is one of very few Star Alliance carriers who use Terminal 1 and, as a business class lounge, it is very basic. It certainly uses no imagination. When one thinks of Virgin’s nightclub-styled lounge, where everything is state of the art, the Star Alliance/SAA lounge is like a log cabin. The food is stodgy, the drinks are limited, the chairs are basic, and the magazines are of a very limited range. The BA lounge at Terminal 5 has the best range of magazines, but I suspect SAA thinks no one who goes to South Africa reads.

But the flight itself was pleasant, even though the seats in business class belong to an obsolete generation. They unfold to almost flat and are exactly the sort of seats being phased out by other carriers. But I slept well on the overnight flight and I awoke feeling ready for work in Johannesburg.

Except that South African Immigration had no interest whatsoever of letting me get in to work in Johannesburg. Two officers were on duty to process three airliners full of passengers who did not hold African passports. It took more than an hour to get through and, at times, it seemed – watching as the queue inched forwards – that neither of the two officers was trying in any way to act swiftly. It’s not unusual to wait an hour at Washington DC or, on a bad day, Heathrow. But there are more than two officers on duty for several hundred passengers entering a gateway airport.

The real fun and games began when, after some days, I wanted to leave Johannesburg and go onto Harare. Oliver Tambo was in chaos. The SAA counters had huge queues and, once again, very few staff. Some kind of mixed check-in – domestic as well as international – meant no priority could be given to anyone. People in danger of missing flights kept being ushered to the front of the queue and this made those waiting in line increasingly impatient. I was told by uniformed staff that coming to the airport only two hours ahead of take off time was cutting it very finely and that I might miss the flight!

This information certainly spooked many people and, suddenly, hucksters – wearing uniforms of some sort – began offering (for a small fee) to usher agitated people to the front. The starting fee was US$400! It could be bargained down to US$40. But then those ushered to the front were not guaranteed of anything. A lone and forelorn SAA employee kept trying to say that people had to take their turn – to be abused by those who had been sure that his uniformed colleague had advised them to take advantage of their service. Again, it took an hour to get to the front of the queue, and by that time the whole exercise had become a soap opera of abuse and bad temper.

There were three check-in staff trying to process all the passengers for five domestic and three international flights. I was told my luggage might not make the flight. (Thankfully, it did.) Once again, no one seemed to be trying to move swiftly. There were no good manners by the check-in staff. It was pretty surly stuff. And their computers seemed to be desperately slow. Once on SAA to Harare it became clear this was an old plane the interior of which had not be modernised or even properly scrubbed down for some time; there were not enough toilets; and the food on this regional flight should not be served to dogs in a township. But it was only a two-hour flight and so the trick was to grin and bear it.

Coming back from Harare, I wanted to transit through International Connections to catch my flight back to London. But, yes, there was first of all a passport check. But if one is connecting from one international flight to another, at the same airport, this should not be necessary. It is a make-work and create employment device. Except that not much work was being done. A single immigration officer, with a most leisurely manner, was trying to handle three arriving planeloads of connecting passengers. Again, people in danger of missing their flights kept being ushered to the front. But the worse thing for anyone in a slow queue is having people jump the queue – no matter what the reason. And this was an unnecessary queue. All the details of all the connecting passengers should have been on the computer – except, of course, as I was reminded later, computers don’t actually work very well in modern South Africa.

While I was waiting I remembered overhearing the anxieties of people not connecting to other flights, but hoping to get through passport and, above all, health control. These were passengers from Zambia and Kenya. They weren’t sure whether their Yellow Fever certificates would be recognised. OK, let me say something very clearly. There is NO Yellow Fever in Zambia and Kenya. This is another make-work, perhaps paranoid example of how South Africa is not the gateway to Africa. And it was clear, listening to Zambian friends, that some South African health officials at Oliver Tambo pretend deliberately not to recognise certain certificates in the hope of extracting a small bribe. In any case, everyone just buys a Yellow Fever certificate from any doctor one approaches. One scam down south is met by another up north. There is no Yellow Fever, but certificates are easy to get for relatively small fees. The health officials at Oliver Tambo are doing nothing that protects South Africa in any way at all.

Finally, I reached the SAA Business Lounge. Yep, just as bad as the one at Heathrow. The concept must have seemed fine: build it above the new shopping mall with windows looking down at the proletariat, in turn looking through windows at Mont Blanc watches and Burberry trenchcoats. But whoever did the interior design needs to go back to school and be sent to the bottom of the class. Every effort has clearly been made to render the lounge as pedestrian a place as possible.

I made a beeline for the computers. My netbook had died in Zimbabwe. But the SAA Business Lounge computers worked – rather, did not work well – from obsolete platforms. No one uses these platforms anymore. Google must think this lounge its worst nightmare. No business of any sophisticated consequence at all can be done on these computers. You can’t even manage Facebook as the script is far too slow. Clearly, someone in control doesn’t understand these things. But, after all, in a country where half the Government Cabinet can’t use email, even on their brand-new and totally wasted smartphones, it may be no wonder that whoever is in charge of this lounge does not appreciate that the computer technology made available to high-paying passengers was out of date when Noah first predicted the flood.

I tried to log into the internet on my own smartphone. It took a while before I realised – because no one had put up any signs – that I would have to track down a login code and so I set out to find a staff member who would give me one. When I got one, it worked for five minutes. Then the internet system in the lounge jammed my phone. I gave up. No work that night. I unjammed it when I got back to London – but not before plotting all manner of foul revenges upon all concerned at Oliver Tambo.

Finally, on the plane – and thankfully via a sky-tunnel and not a bus (and why are there not enough sky tunnels at a brand new airport?) – I found my Business Class seat was faulty. I already knew it would not unfold flat, but the footrest was reluctant to unfold at all. I wasn’t going to complain. My experience was that things then only got worse. So I manually yanked the footrest into the position I wanted. I know I broke the seat. I didn’t care. Things should not be like this.

I want with all my heart to love the new South Africa. As a teenager I demonstrated in the streets of my home country against Apartheid. As a young man, I lived in Lusaka in the 1980s, alongside the ANC exiles and was part of the safe-house network for the children whenever the white commandos attacked Zambia to ‘take out’ their ANC parents. I have supported this country in every way possible. But the gateway to Africa is not working. Oliver Tambo is not working. SAA is not working. On the London to Johannesburg route, BA and Virgin are simply better. People on budgets take Emirates. The journey is longer but Business Class is better. Of course, no airline prepares them for chaos at Oliver Tambo. At least the toilet attendants at the airport seem to have stopped hustling for tips. Just as well. I had to use the toilets downstairs as, of course, the ones in the Business Lounge were closed. DM


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