William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many were flying SAA?

Forget about the cryptic Nostradamus if you want to descry the shape of the future in the utterances of the past. Look rather at an unknown medieval English riddler who with uncanny foresight predicted the excesses almost 400 years later of the South African government.

The riddle is about a man with four wives on a journey to Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Well, not exactly. That’s taking prophetic licence. It is actually about a man with seven wives on a journey to St Ives, Cornwall.

It goes: ‘As I was going to St. Ives/ I met a man with seven wives/ Each wife had seven sacks/ Each sack had seven cats/ Each cat had seven kits/ Kits, cats, sacks, and wives/ How many were there going to St. Ives?’

Arithmetically, there are a number of possible answers, but in a SA context the best answer is one of political philosophy. It is, far too many. Especially when they are not walking but travelling South African Airways (SAA) and the taxpayer is paying.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the national airline is in trouble. At a long-delayed annual general meeting it last month revealed that its annual loss had doubled to R2.6-billion and that it is ‘technically bankrupt’.

To remedy this, Nico Bezuidenhout, SAA’s acting chief executive, launched a ‘90-day action plan’, ending March 31, which will supposedly ‘steer SAA back to full implementation of its Long Term Turnaround Strategy (LTTS)’. So basically, when one cuts through the gumph, it’s clear that the SAA management plane had drifted so far off course that it had to fly for three months to get back to the take-off point.

Bezuidenhout took one hard decision that saves R600-million a year. He closed the loss-making direct flights to Beijing and Mumbai. These routes were opened not because of commercial viability but as an act of pandering symbolism upon SA’s accession to the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group of emerging economies.

Other SAA stringency measures, however, have a faint air of desperation. Last week the airline dumped all the magazines, used blankets, toiletries and leftover food from an A340-600 aircraft returning from Munich, to reduce extra weight and cut fuel costs.

It makes sense to cut weight. But we shouldn’t be dumping ephemera; we should rather ditch the corpulent free-riders that are eating out of our wallets.

Our parliamentarians, numbering 490, are each entitled to 84 domestic economy class tickets a year for themselves and their spouses, as well as 12 for each kid. Conservatively, that’s around 47 000 seats or the equivalent of SAA’s 12 Airbus A320-232s, which carry 138 passengers, each undertaking 340 free flights a year.

Of course parliamentary duties should not damage family life, but as a comparison, British MPs, not known for their frugality, get 15 air tickets a year in total, for all their children.

The break-even on a domestic ticket – where SAA incurs its biggest losses – is R1 700. So these slipstreaming public representative are punching an at least R80-million hole in the SA fiscus, because it is the taxpayer who ultimately reimburses SAA — or any other airline that they travel on — for the cost of their tickets.

Then there are the ministers and their deputies, of which there are 74 at most recent count, and their coat-tailing entourages. Because the ministerial handbook outlining conditions of service is considered top-secret – presumably on the grounds that it would blow up in the government’s face were we to we full comprehend the lotus life of our leaders – one has to work with the 2007 version, which the Mail&Guardian managed to unearth.

According to this, our ethereal ministerials are each annually entitled to 74 free business class tickets. I was unable to establish whether they also get their 84 economy class parliamentary tickets.

Each kid at school, or dependent in tertiary education, gets six free flights a year. There are another eight tickets each, for to-ing and fro-ing between place of education and Parliament or the ministerial permanent residence. Also, during the parliamentary session, each dependent gets another ticket to visit the folks.

The children, ‘if they cannot remain at home’ can, along with spouses, accompany Cabinet members on any ‘official’ trip – one that involves ministerial business of any kind. That’s true also of international trips, although spouses must pay for themselves on these.

Again, working conservatively with two kittens per cabinet member, it means that around 11 000 business class seats, at about R4 000 a seat, amounting to around another R44-million can be added to the hidden subsidy the taxpayer is making. Most of that would go to SAA, though some would go to other airlines.

Each year the gravy plane perks become more lavish – by the way, ministers and their families are entitled to free Blue Train travel, costing between R14,000-R29,000 a pop – and the potential for misuse is obvious. It’s a profligacy that SA not only cannot afford, but also is obscene in a nation with so much poverty.

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