The South African government holds out its airline as a shining example of black empowerment, which carries the name and symbolism of the “new” South Africa far and wide. Indeed, for decades, South African Airways (SAA) was famous as one of the best airlines in the world, consistently winning industry awards for service. Its well-maintained aircraft were highly sought after on the used aircraft market, and the bravado of its pilots became legendary as they operated under increasingly difficult political constrictions, even being denied overflight rights over their own continent and flying “round the bulge” of Africa to Europe. Now SAA is no longer an industry leader, and its unraveling record is one of appalling service, serious crime, corruption, and graft–all driven by a reckless policy of racial preferences that has put incompetent people in positions of authority.
When the new CEO Andre Viljoen took charge in 2001, he described the organization as “partially dysfunctional.” While this was mainly an attempt to shift the blame onto his predecessor, the American Coleman Andrews, the reality was that affirmative action had bitten deeply into the company. Mr. Viljoen stated that his first priority was to “drastically improve declining service,” a decline that has prompted repeated calls by big customers like Anglo-American to improve service, and has even seen South Africa’s national carrier lose the South African Rugby Football Union contract to a local airline owned by British Airways.
Pilots and Affirmative Action
SAA has been systematically replacing whites with black employees. This has included lowering the compulsory retirement age for pilots to 50 years, down from the industry standard of 60. This policy has been a major point of contention between SAA and its mainly-white pilots, who recognize it as an attempt to move whites out of the command chain as quickly as possible.
SAA has also deliberately established a policy of not hiring white pilot trainees if there are suitable non-white candidates. Pilots used to be trained in South Africa, but in 1994–the year the African National Congress (ANC) took power–the company outsourced the training program to British Aerospace’s center in Australia. The theory was to put cadet pilots through their paces far from the seemingly ever-present possibility of “racism,” and produce a string of high-flying blacks.
Unfortunately, almost none of the black cadet pilots made it through the Australian training, and were sent home. This caused great unhappiness in SAA management which, in July 2002, decided to bring pilot training back to South Africa, where blacks might not fail tests in such great numbers. The few black pilots who made it through the course in Australia were appointed to senior posts, but suffered a serious setback in 2000, when seven–that is to say almost all of them–were arrested on charges of bribing their way through the Civil Aviation examination paper that put them at the controls of passenger jets. The pilots each paid approximately 7,000 Rand (US$ 650) to get a copy of the Airline Transport Pilots License examination paper before taking the test. Two non-white members of South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority were also arrested along with the pilots. Two of the pilots were found guilty but fled the country before sentencing, and the rest were suspended. However when the cases of the remaining five came to court, the files had disappeared and the charges had to be dropped for lack of evidence. The parliamentary opposition tried to launch an investigation into this failure to prosecute, but that came to nothing. Today, many of the pilots are back flying for SAA.
One of the black pilots who vanished, Tanzanian-born Issaya Dominicus Nombo, was arrested in April 2002 by the FBI in New Jersey, after his name turned up on a list of pilots found in a cave used by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although there was no evidence Mr. Nombo was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, he has since been held in America pending extradition. Interestingly, the 44-year-old Mr. Nombo had entered the USA on a student visa for pilot training, granted by the US Consulate in Johannesburg, even though the South African authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest.
By October 2002, the affirmative action program at SAA had ensured that 51 percent of all staff were black, with cabin attendants having the highest black complement at 64 percent. At one point, all cabin crew were fired under cover of a “restructuring” process, and had to reapply for their positions. This was an opportunity to shed another 500 white staff members by not reappointing them.
At the beginning of 2003, there were some 2,400 cabin crew at SAA, and the sudden increase in blacks has had what cynics would suggest were predictable results: Customer complaints have become legendary. One of SAA’s most prominent critics is an American, Vernon Six, from Austin, Texas, who experienced SAA at its worst.
Traveling SAA on his honeymoon, on November 14, 2001, flight #SA211, Mr. Six was subjected to the following:
SAA originally assigned Mr. Six and his bride to seats in different rows. When they asked for reseating at the ticket counter, the agent said, “Stop your complaining . . . after about ten years of marriage you will be begging for seats in different rows.”
The air conditioner that keeps the cabin cool on the ground broke down. When Mr. Six mentioned this to a SAA crew member, he says he was “rudely informed to ‘stop whinging’ as the air conditioner was broken and there was nothing she could do for us.” The toilet flooded the cabin and wet his socks, with what Mr. Six says was sewage. The seat in front of Mr. Six’s wife was completely broken and reclined well past the normal reclining position. She was unable even to eat her meal because the seat reclined completely into her lap.
On his return flight, November 27, 2001, flight #SA220, the toilets stopped working altogether. He says the captain urged everyone to “only use the restrooms in a dire emergency and let a flight attendant know when they needed flushing.” The flight attendants had to use drinking water to flush the toilets, so there was no coffee or tea. The television screen was jumping too much to watch the videos. When Mr. Six reported this to a flight attendant, he was told “I’m sorry, but this is just economy class.”
Mr. Six asked for compensation from SAA. When the company’s black corporate communications manager, Rich Mkondo, refused, Mr. Six set up a website called www.neverflysaa.com, a parody of SAA’s official website, www.flysaa.com. Mr Six has since had over 6.5 million hits, and a regular e-mail list of some 81,000 people, all of them aggrieved customers of SAA. Many have sent in their own complaints to his website. Here is a small selection:
“The seats were in terrible condition; JHB to NY two of the four seats were torn (old tears with no sign of attempted repair) and filthy, NY to JHB (different aircraft) the seats were filthy and the armrest between two of the seats was broken, the top was broken off and you could see into the armrest with all the wiring plainly visible. After making a lot of noise about this they found some duct tape and taped it together, this broken armrest had obviously been broken for some time.”
“The flight attendants did not speak fluent English (you’d think this would be a requirement on international flights) most times you had to say things three or four times before they knew what you were talking about (I am South African and English speaking), they were so busy talking to each other every time someone wanted something they had to get up and go to the galley themselves. They were definitely not presentable (neat and tidy in clothing and appearance).” “I tried calling the SAA complaints line after been diverted and transferred from pillar to post I finally lost it and requested the manager–who is never there, left tons of messages–which as you can guess were never returned. So at that stage I vowed never to fly this crap ‘airline’ again.”
“I refuse to touch food on SAA. I’ve had food poisoning more than once. Luckily, very mild cases compared to a mate of mine who had to spend a Friday night in hospital after our return from Cape Town, getting his stomach pumped after trying some onboard cuisine.”
“I am an ex-employee of SAA and spent 28 years with the airline until I was forced into a severance package. . . . [T]he airline mirrors the country and it is on a downhill slide. As one of your correspondents mentioned, pre-1990, the airline was magnificent, but then political pressure forced the employment of incompetent persons, and that says it all. I too, will NOT fly SAA ever again. Having been on the inside and aware of many things regarding flying crew and technical–NO WAY.”
“As a South African myself, I too have decided never to fly SAA again. There was once a time I was proud of our national carrier. That is definitely not the case any more. After countless bad experiences flying from London to Cape Town , I now will only fly BA or Virgin.”
And so on.
SAA tried to have Mr. Six’s site closed down, arguing that his domain name was so close to the company’s as to be confusing. The case went to arbitration, and Mr. Six won. On his web page he quotes his favorite passage from the arbitrator’s decision: “Respondent [Mr. Six] is correct: no reasonable man or Internet user would confuse flysaa.com and neverflysaa.com. The decisions cited by Complainant [SAA] are nonsensical.”
More ominously, Mr. Six and his wife received telephone death threats at their home–though only people who had access to SAA records would have had the number, since it was in his wife’s maiden name–and someone has tried to put his web page out of business by flooding it with hits. The attacks failed, and his web page continues.
Service complaints have had a drastic effect on SAA passenger loads, and demand for SAA’s privately-run domestic competitors is increasing. Recently the airline cut four flights a week to the US because of declining demand.
In one service lapse that made headlines, SAA twice in the space of two years abandoned the same 10-year old child left in its care as an unaccompanied minor on a domestic flight. According to black SAA spokesman Rich Mkhondo, the ticket officer to whom the child had been entrusted “forgot” about her.
The largely affirmative-action cabin crew commit many crimes. In just one incident, some 92 SAA cabin attendants were suspended on suspicion of bringing cocaine and other drugs into the country. Other crew members have been suspended for bribing roster schedulers to secure certain destinations, as part of drug smuggling operations.
Occasionally crime makes the newspapers. In April 2000, SAA announced it had uncovered “a nest of corruption among staff,” including charges of “male and female prostitution, money laundering, bribery and smuggling” during foreign stopovers.
Similo Sircharles Sali used to be one of SAA’s few black pilots. His career ended in August 2002, when he was arrested with five kilos of cocaine as he was preparing to fly from Cape Town to London. The South African Pilots Association chairman, John Harty, pointed out, “This is the first time in South African airline history that a pilot has been held for allegedly being in possession of drugs.”
SAA also suffers from extraordinarily high baggage theft rates, with the company having paid out more than R1 million ($92,800) in the first nine months of 2001 alone for claims on 3,108 stolen bags. Fifteen SAA employees were arrested during that same period, and another 54 were either dismissed or resigned when threatened with criminal charges for baggage theft.
There are other kinds of theft. One black vice president was found to have purchased a car for personal use on his SAA company credit card, while another had his house tiled on the company card. Shortly thereafter, SAA revoked the cards of all vice presidents.
The height of effrontery came, however, when a previous head of the legal department–the Chief Council of SAA–had to ask the company to guarantee a home mortgage. No commercial bank would lend to him because of his miserable credit rating. He had failed to mention his string of financial indiscretions when he was made top lawyer at SAA, and no one in the increasingly affirmative-action personnel department had bothered to ask.
SAA recently had to pull the plug on an Internet venture based in New York after spending over R90 million ($8.35 million) to develop a website that would have let tourists arrange elaborate travel packages at the click of a button. The project had been approved by the board but collapsed when SAA asked the South African Reserve Bank for approval to establish the company in the United States. SAA claimed that the Minister of Public Enterprise, Jeff Radebe, had given the project the all-clear, but Mr. Radebe had either forgotten or had not been informed–either is possible–and reported as much to the Reserve Bank. The project then collapsed in a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations, leaving SAA out of pocket.
The airline’s incompetence extends into many areas. In one famous incident, a non-white South African diplomat, one Jerome Barnes, on his way to his posting at the South African embassy in London, got drunk on the overnight flight from Johannesburg, fondled a flight attendant and called one of the few remaining white pursers a “f***ing white bitch.” SAA, conscious that the vast majority of its South African clientele are whites, promptly announced that the offending diplomat was forever barred from flying SAA, and that his name was entered into SAA’s database of banned persons. Less than a week after the “banning,” a South African journalist breezed through SAA’s security system by buying a ticket in the diplomat’s name. The computers must not have been working that day.
The still largely white pilot contingent–of the 954 SAA pilots, only 28 were black in mid-2002–has consistently battled management over personnel policies, and has brought the company to the verge of a strike more than once since 2000. The core of the pilots’ dispute with the company is their refusal to accept certain cost-cutting measures that, they say, are negligible compared to the enormous waste of what they call “underperforming management.” Everyone knows the color of “underperforming management,” but no one dares say so for fear of being called racist.
International aviation law requires airlines to make sure their passengers have visas for their destinations, but SAA pays huge fines to the American Immigration and Naturalization Service, because it cannot keep illegal immigrants off its flights. In just one month, December 2001, SAA paid more than R1 million ($93,000) in fines on 26 passengers (and, incredibly enough, one crew member) who were held in New York and Atlanta without visas. Of the 26, 19 were Nigerian, two South African, two British, one was posing as an American, and two were of unknown nationality.
The problem is exacerbated by a code sharing agreement with Nigerian Airways, according to which flights from Johannesburg stop off in Lagos before going on to New York, allowing many Nigerians a route into the US. Nigerian Airways, by the way, has one aircraft, but is banned from flying to Europe or the United States because it does not meet FAA safety regulations.
A particularly spectacular bungle had to do with the acquisition of new aircraft. Coleman Andrews, the American former CEO, ordered 21 new Boeings, but someone failed to transmit the correct specifications on avionics and cabin interiors to the suppliers. The result was a dramatic cost increase and a lengthy delay while the aircraft were refitted.
As if this were not enough, after Mr. Andrews left SAA, the company canceled its order for the Boeings–some had already been delivered–and placed a new order with Airbus in Europe. The Airbuses were reportedly cheaper than the Boeings, but considering the initial bungle on the interiors, the cancellation fees to Boeing, and the pilot and service retraining costs (till then, almost all of SAA’s fleet were Boeings) the cost of this series of misadventures must have been considerably greater than if the airline had stuck with Boeing.
There was another high-profile case of incompetence in 2000 that could have had very serious consequences. Failure to run a computer program resulted in replacement parts for SAA’s fleet of Boeing 737-200s being run for more than twice the specified service periods. Fortunately, the parts held up without serious malfunction.
In 2000, SAA also started offering the overwhelmingly white technical staff retirement packages to withdraw and make way for black technicians. Many whites accepted, particularly after the Australian airline, Qantas, and the Spanish airline, Iberian Air, heard about the offers and set up recruiting offices in Johannesburg. SAA was stripped of many of its most experienced repair and service personnel overnight.
The result has been predictable: SAA has suffered an increasing number of equipment failures. Fortunately none has yet caused a major disaster, but insiders say it is only a matter of time. Failures include navigation or communication equipment breakdowns, which are called “snags,” and are supposed to be fixed before an aircraft is flown. It is now common for SAA planes to fly even long hauls with significant “snag lists,” which have either not been repaired, or have been “repaired” but are still broken.
Engine failures attract the most public attention. In April 2001, a London flight had to be aborted twice in 12 hours because of engine malfunctions on takeoff. The faulty engine was removed, serviced by SAA Technical and put back–only to fail once again as the aircraft was attempting to take off.
In August 2002, two separate flights suffered engine failures on the same day, stranding nearly 600 passengers. According to inside sources, SAA has had more engine failures in the past two years than in the previous ten.
An American in Africa
In 1998, just four years after the ANC victory and the switch to black rule, SAA appointed an energetic American, Coleman Andrews, as CEO, and charged him with putting the airline back on the road to profitability. He came with 20 years experience as a management consultant at Bain and Co. succeeded in getting SAA into the black. However, he left SAA early, under a cloud, accused of making an excessive profit on his salary. In fact, his compensation was in line with airline CEOs worldwide, and under his contract, his forced early retirement required a substantial severance package. Mr. Andrews’s name was smeared by the South African media, but he did turn the airline around.
Mr. Andrews appears to have had the classic experience of a white liberal in South Africa. When he first arrived, he may really have believed Africa was backward only because of “colonialism” or “the environment,” but by the time he left, he may have come to other conclusions.
Mr. Andrews was quoted as follows in a 2001 book about his tenure at SAA (Jetlag: SA Airways in the Andrews Era by Denis Beckett):
“When I flew to South Africa in January 1998, for my first round of interviews, I was met by Saki Macozoma [an executive at Transnet, SAA’s government-owned holding company] . . . I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty exceptional political and business leaders up close, and meeting Saki, I thought, ‘this guy can hold his own on the world stage.’ I was very excited, and thought if this is what South Africa is like, it has places to go. When I was leaving, after a few days’ meeting many people, I wasn’t quite so sure anymore. When Saki saw me off, I said: ‘How many are there like you, executives in your mould?’ I suppose I meant ‘black’ and I think this is what he interpreted. He said ‘we’re thin.’ I wondered if that meant a thousand, a hundred. I still thought, with caliber like that, this place is worth giving a go. Now I know it meant three, or five.”
Mr. Andrews eventually came close to the real reason he was shown the door: “Management was under siege. Our IT department was a disaster. To fix it, I had to fire the guy in charge, an affirmative [action] guy (a non-white) who was completely out of his depth. Next I know hell has broken loose. How can I do this? Do I not know he is connected to important people? The end is that he gets severance pay. For screwing up, he gets two years’ salary.”
Andrews adds: “On the board, I had one guy whose only interest was: what proportion of our executives are black? There was constant pressure, it led to some disasters, personal disasters for people who should have been left to grow quietly in the middle ranks.”
Mr. Andrews’s real sin at SAA was that he tried to run the company like a business, whereas the government’s main interest was, and still is, ideological: that the airline be run as an example of “black empowerment.”
The much maligned Mr. Andrews seems to have spotted the problem right at the end but was powerless to do anything about it. He became another victim of the black political agenda, which is dragging what used to be a world-leading airline down to Third-World status, along with the rest of the country.
Mr. Andrews is almost a metaphor for whites as a group. They refuse to understand the significance of race until the damage is so great it cannot be repaired. Mr. Andrews had a majority-white country to return to–at least for now. What he saw in South Africa should be a lesson to him about what his own country will face if its population continues to change.