OPINION: Consequences

Norman McFarlane

One of the many joys of science, is that pretty much all of it is settled fact, because of the application of the scientific method.

Take for example, Newton’s Third Law, which in most science textbooks, is stated as: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

We’ve all at some point personally experienced this law of physics, even if we do not consciously connect the action and reaction and recognise this scientific fundamental in action.

Perhaps the best example, with which many people will be familiar, is boarding a small boat and pushing off from the jetty, before getting underway.

But, you might argue, the boat moved away from the jetty, rather than the other way around, so where is the equal force in both directions?

The force exerted by both objects is equal, but because the jetty is anchored in the earth, and the boat not, the boat moves, rather than the jetty.

If, on the other hand, two boats of equal size and displacement come together on the water to exchange passengers, and then are pushed apart by a person on each, current and wind aside, the two boats will move apart equidistantly, thereby satisfying Newton’s Third Law.

What, you may ask, has this to do with anything?

Well, Newton’s Third Law is as relevant to our societal milieu, as it is to the interactions between physical objects, and in the context of societal interactions, we call them consequences.

In this context, perhaps one of the most valuable lessons a parent can teach a child, is the law of consequences, which is the societal equivalent of Newton’s Third Law.

For every action that you or I take, there is an equal (more or less) and opposite (usually) reaction.

Take for example, an interaction on the school playground. A peer gets in your face over some or other issue. Tempers flare and insults are hurled. Eventually, one of you shoves the other (action), and the other shoves back (reaction or consequence). It comes to blows, and you both end up in the head’s office.

After the first blow was landed, every one that followed was a consequence.

If you are of my generation, the consequence of the fracas for both parties, was a good caning.

We may be able to defer the consequences of our actions for a time, but we generally cannot sidestep them completely, or forever.

What is currently unfolding in our politics, on so many fronts, is proof positive that most people are oblivious of the fact that we live in a world of consequences.

Take SAA, for example. Before the unions decided to get (more) greedy, 5.9% was on the table, and chances are, SAA would have found the money somewhere to honour that increase.

When the SAA board announced that it would be shedding 994 jobs out of its bloated staff compliment, the unions decided to up the ante, demanded 8%, no retrenchments, and threatened to “shut down the civil aviation sector” if it didn’t get its way.

In short order, most major travel agents stopped selling SAA tickets, some major insurers withdrew travel insurance cover for SAA travellers, and the banks declined to stump up more cash.

When the deal was finally struck between SAA and the unions, it emerged that the unions had, in fact blinked. The 5.9% remained on the table, but in three tranches from February to April and only if there was money to pay the increase. The retrenchment process for managerial posts went ahead, the balance deferred until January 31.

SAA staff received only half of their salary for the month of November.

The unions’ ended up with a bloody nose, but more importantly, SAA staff have reaped the consequences of the decision to strike.

The carrier is now in business rescue, and whereas there might have been a chance of saving it in some shape or form before the industrial action, the consistent assessment of people who actually know something about how airlines function and how a business works (and I deliberately exclude the unions from this cohort), is that it is doomed.

In summary therefore, the consequences of the unions’ decision to strike, have been catastrophic.

What might have been saved, is now, to all intents and purposes, lost, and the consequent job losses will be catastrophic, by comparison with the original 944 proposed by the SAA board.

But what brought SAA to the brink, and could it have been avoided?

SAA’s current condition, on life support in ICU, is a consequence of cadre deployment, political meddling, wholesale plunder, and using the carrier as a source of jobs for the faithful, the latter affirmed by a comparison of aircraft to staff ratio with other major carriers.

And yes, it could have been avoided.

But SAA is not alone. For precisely the same reasons, Eskom, PRASA, Denel, and pretty much every other one of the 700-odd public enterprises, are in dire straights.

Whereas government has largely left SAA to its own devices, refusing to intervene in the strike negotiations and also refusing to keep on stumping up the cash the carrier needs, how will it deal with what is happening at Eskom, or for that matter, PRASA, which is also in terminal condition?

And let’s not forget the bloated civil service, around 1.3 million people at national, provincial and local government level, making it one of the largest in the world, relative to national population.

We now know that 29-thousand elected officials and civil servants earn R1 million or more a year, and estimates put the annual average cost to the fiscus per public sector employee at national and provincial level, according to Treasury, at R393 000. More telling, is the fact that for every R1 000 government spends, R340 goes to employee compensation.

And Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said in his mid-term budget policy statement that “not much can be done about this”.

Irrespective of what is done – including doing nothing – about SAA, Eskom, the bloated civil service, State Capture, rising unemployment, declining economic growth, rising emigration, declining tax revenue, and increasing societal anger at the lack of service delivery, the consequences are inescapable.