Who’s the villain then?

Norman McFarlane
It’s a common scene in horror movies. The hero has just finished a fight to the death with the villain. Bloodied and battered, he turns to the heroine, and takes her in his arms to comfort her.

In the background, to the audience’s consternation, the villain rises to once more attack the now unsuspecting hero, and a further titanic battle ensues, until either the protagonist or the antagonist lies vanquished.

Despite the numerous death blows inflicted on SAA, the ailing national carrier seems to parody this over-used cinematic device as it stubbornly refuses to just lie down and die.

But which is SAA? The hero or the villain of the piece?

The running battle between the SAA business rescue practitioners on the one hand, and SAA, the unions, and the ruling party government on the other, comes to a head tomorrow, when the meeting of creditors votes on the adoption of a belatedly produced business rescue plan.

This has all played out against the backdrop of union intransigence in accepting the inevitable – that thousands of jobs will be forfeit – and the flights of fancy aired by Public Enterprises Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and President Cyril Ramaphosa, that out of the ashes of SAA, a profitable, sustainable and internationally competitive airline will miraculously arise, despite the enormous contraction in global civil aviation projected by the International Air Transport Association as a result of the Covid19 pandemic.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South African (Numsa) and the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) are attempting to interdict tomorrow’s vote, which will see 3 700 jobs shed in an attempt to save SAA, leaving only 1 000 employees being retained, to try to dig SAA out of the hole it has dug for itself over the last two decades.

The rescue plan will also require government to pony up R2.8 billion in restarting costs and keeping creditors at bay, but considering that government rejected the last plea for a cash injection of R10 billion, from whence will this money come, considering the sizeable hole gouged out of the fiscus by the lockdown?

The money forthcoming from the IMF and the New Development Bank is all supposed to be used for Covid-19 related relief, and considering the period of time over which SAA has haemorrhaged cash thrown at it by the government, it can hardly claim that its travails are the result of the pandemic. SAA was already a dead man walking a couple of decades before the SARSCoV-2 coronavirus was even a blip on the horizon.

The four major banks are SAA’s biggest creditors, and between them are owed R16.4 billion, all of which is guaranteed by government, which makes the tax payer the de facto “lender” of last resort.
Government, represented by the Department of Public Enterprises, as the sole shareholder, has thrown its weight behind the business rescue plan, noting it will resist any efforts to interdict tomorrow’s meeting and vote.

Which is kind of odd, considering the cosy relationship it has attempted to project that it has with the unions, bringing to mind that hoary old chestnut, running with the hares while hunting with the hounds.

On the sidelines of this farce, regional feeder airline SA Airlink, a privately-owned carrier which flies under SAA-like livery, has filed court papers in an attempt to force SAA into liquidation for a debt of over R500 million for tickets sold by SAA. The liquidation, which has little chance of success, would kibosh the efforts of government, the unions, and the business rescue practitioners.

Just seven short months ago, the unions chose to reject a restructuring plan which would shed 944 jobs from its bloated staff compliment in an attempt to save the airline, demanding instead an inflated pay rise – 8% instead of the agreed to 5.9% – which resulted in the airline being put into business rescue.
If SAA finally dies, the unions will have a great deal to answer for.
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