CAN there be peak stupid? Or is stupid’s growth boundless and forever unchecked, a great irrational force eternally expanding much like the universe is constantly ballooning out in the great void for all time?
It’s a matter of some debate, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”).
The optimists among us insist, perhaps naively, that there must be an end to it, that eventually we hit a point akin to year zero and, much like the microscopic organisms that emerged from the prebiotic broth a zillion years ago, an evolutionary process towards some higher life form will take hold as a slow return to thinking coalesces.
Fat chance of that, say the pessimists. There’s no end to this atavism, this hell-ride. There’s no bottoming out and certainly no miraculous bouncing back in the brains department.
The doomsayers may have a point. It does seem, at times, that we’re trapped in a never-ending loop in the idiot cycle, a moronic Möbius strip. All we can do is grin like sheep, strap ourselves in and pray we don’t hit too much debris along the way.
So it is with South African Airways.
This week, it was announced the Development Bank of Southern Africa will grant the lame duck airline a government-guaranteed six-month R3.5-billion loan as part of a woolly “business rescue” scheme hurriedly pieced together with string and sellotape late last year. This, if I read Peter Bruce in Business Day correctly, is R1.5-billion more than the bale-out figure bandied about in December.
At which point a reasonable person would want to know a bit more about this rescue plan. One or two salient details, perhaps.
A slightly more skeptical person would perhaps ask how is it possible that, in only a matter of weeks, the cost of this rescue plan could increase by R1.5-billion? And, more importantly, given this alarming escalation, where’s the sense in persisting with this reckless behaviour?
Such people would of course be unfamiliar with the fundamental principle of doing business the ubuntu way: “I am because we are; and since we are, I am therefore entitled to yours and and theirs…”
So, as long as there’s still some money to gouge from the taxpayer, why not waste it? Doing so suggests there is a pulse there and that something is, at least, happening…
But perhaps this is too unkind. The romance and glamour of air travel remain all-powerful, and government can hardly be blamed for wanting to soar with the best of them.
Part of the allure is down to sex appeal, and who will ever forget the then public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba preening about at the opening of Parliament in 2014 in the uniform of an SAA captain?
It was a look that said, “Step into my cockpit and I’ll take you to the stars.” And why not? Gigaba had just royally screwed a turnaround strategy put forward by then SAA board chair Cheryl Carolus and was game for more joystick stuff.
There’s a nostalgic element as well. Consider the growing interest in aviation’s golden age, with collectors now paying serious money for vintage airline posters, particularly those that reflected the African colonial era.
The Belgian airline Sabena, for example, would promote their routes to the continent with graphic illustrations of tribal warriors dancing while their aircraft flew overhead. All very big bird with silver wings and what have you.
Perhaps one of the more notable of these posters was issued in the 1930s by the French government’s Regie Air Afrique. It features a passenger gazing down at an outpost on what could be the Congo river from his seat on what is probably a Junkers Ju 52. He’s in tropical whites and sporting a pith helmet, which suggests he could be some sort of minor official. (As a rule, public servants enjoy wearing hats when flying. They know it bothers other people, and this is in keeping with their general demeanour.)
But the most striking thing about this poster is how much leg room this passenger has, and how comfortable he seems, seated in a wicker armchair and not some torture rack. He has elbow room, too. No fat oafs in sleeping masks with wires in their ears dozing on his shoulder.
Plus, an added bonus if this was a Ju 52 and he was sitting in the middle of the aircraft: he could wind down the window and fly with his elbow out the airplane and perhaps pick up a fashionable farmer’s tan.
I digress. Sabena and Regie Air Afrique, like so many carriers, have long since disappeared from our skies, and the former colonies they once serviced have all had a crack at running their own carriers. The list of defunct African airlines is a long one, and one wonders how many of them would be still be flying had they enjoyed the sort of munificence that has been chucked at SAA.
Keeping our airline afloat remains a costly vanity exercise in the ANC’s nationalism project; it would seem that we’re not a functioning democracy, a proper country, if we don’t have a national airline. Travellers puff with patriotic pride, I’ve been told, at the sight of that distinctive SAA livery at foreign airports.
My own experience of airports is that they are places designed to degrade and dehumanise tourists and so I tend not to linger and gawp at aircraft. But enough about me.
Having an airline, it’s said, is vital because of the role it plays in the tourism sector. Which is a bit like suggesting that air travel to South Africa would cease should SAA disappear. The truth, though, is that some air travel would certainly cease — and that is the thousands of free flights that ANC ministers, their staff, MPs and their families enjoy at our expense each year.
An example of the abuse of this “perk” of public service emerged in City Press last weekend which detailed how social development deputy minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu fiddled her travel allowances to help a future in-law, a functionary in her department, pay lobolo.
There was a certain ferret-like cunning involved here. In a nutshell: in 2016, administrative clerk Zwidofhela Mafoko proposes to Bogopane-Zulu’s niece, Nompumelelo Msibi. She accepts — but Mafoko cannot afford the bride price Msibi’s folks are demanding, so he approaches the deputy minister and asks to be promoted from his mid-level position to a vacant deputy director post.
Sadly, this is not possible. Mafoko had been promoted to a higher-level post three months earlier, and does not yet meet the requirements to be a deputy director. However, Bogopane-Zulu has a cunning plan. She arranges for Mafoko to join her on four international flights — and then instructs him to be “disciplined” and not spend his entire subsistence and travel allowance, an amount said to be between R40 000 and R50 000; he will then be able to save the R20 000 needed for his lobolo.
Mafoko and Msibi duly tied the knot the following year.
Bogopane-Zulu told City Press what she did was not unlawful as “it is the mother in me trying to help a young South African”. Clever Auntie!
But would this have been possible if SAA had been grounded? Would there be international tickets to dole out to helpless, lovelorn young South Africans in her department who just happen to be marrying into her family?
Well, only if government bought her the tickets from some other airline. Which is not a bad idea. Judging by what they’ve squandered so far on SAA, buying first class tickets by the bucketload and at a premium from Virgin or Lufthansa or whoever would still be way, way cheaper than these forlorn attempts to keep our national carrier going.
Meanwhile, SAA has announced the cancellation and consolidation of certain scheduled flights “in an effort to ensure flight efficiency”. In a statement released on Thursday, the airline said this would include flights where there is “low demand based on current forward bookings for the month of February”.
Could this be a start to its grounding by stealth? A piecemeal process of scrapping the airline at a tortoise-like pace, so slow that no-one will notice?
We shall see.