Calling Air Traffic Control

In September 2008, when I was working for the United Nations, I had to fly from Monrovia in Liberia to Freetown in Sierra Leone.

We took off in fine weather from Monrovia, but as we approached Freetown the weather took a significant turn for the worse and the aircraft was being buffeted all over the place. At this point, some of the passengers started praying.

In the hope of sighting recognisable landmarks, I stared out of the window – this to no avail as we were shrouded in cloud. Then, just for a moment there was a break in the cloud, and below us I saw a Kenya Airways Airbus appear and disappear in a split second.

Shortly thereafter our pilot started lining us up for the landing in Freetown. We were flying through the darkest cloud I have ever experienced (how I imagine Armageddon to be), rain was blasting the windows, and the passengers were now eerily silent, our lives in the hands of the two pilots.

Just when I could make out the runway, the engines suddenly throttled loudly, the aircraft’s nose turned up sharply and we started to climb. A calm voice over the intercom, without a trace of panic said: “This is your Captain speaking. As you may have noticed we are not landing. I will explain more when we clear this bad weather.”

I cannot emphasise enough how happy I was to hear a South African accent speaking to us. At that moment I would not have wanted any other pilot in the world; not even a US Navy top gun would have offered me the same feeling of relief. I knew that we were going to be okay.

Eventually we climbed above the weather and the captain said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to advise that we are unable to land in Freetown due to the weather and hence are now diverting to Conakry in Guinea.”

We duly landed in Conakry where we were permitted to disembark and stand on the tarmac.

I started talking to the co-pilot and, straightaway, we acknowledged our fellow South African-ness.

He told me that air traffic control had cleared us to land, but that the captain had aborted as it was simply too dangerous. I then asked him about the Kenya Airways aircraft. He was astounded that I had seen it and shared that air traffic control had told them that they could not land.

The Kenya airways captain had said they were down to their last five minutes of fuel and that if they did not land immediately, they were going to crash. “I am coming in,” he had stated. Amazed I said, “So you were told to land and didn’t, while Kenya Airways was told not to land and did!”

Clearly I lived to tell the tale, but my story serves to illustrate, literally and metaphorically, that even with the best pilots in the world, unless air traffic control is on top of things, we will battle to reach our destination and increase the risk of crashing.

In an article in the Financial Mail on 10 September 2015 titled: ‘Pilots aren’t the Problem’, the Chair of South African Airways Pilots’ Association, Captain John Harty set out the problem, which could be applied to a number of our state-run entities.

He said that when SAA Airways Chair Dudu Myeni was asked to cite the top challenges facing SAA, she listed pilots and pilots’ salaries.

“This assertion is as remarkable as it is untrue,” he wrote. “Frankly, based on the current financial figures, if every SAA pilot worked for free, the airline would continue to rack up losses in the billions.”

What Myeni should have said was: “SAA has soaked up billions of rand in bailouts over the years due to poor governance, a meddling shareholder and management that has resembled a game of musical chairs.”

What is lacking, he added, is a board that understands what it takes to run a successful airline and a management team with the aviation experience to make that happen. Anything less will see SAA continuing to be a drain on the SA fiscus and in danger of crashing for good.

Which brings me to the question: Who is the ‘air traffic controller’ for the National Development Plan? We can have the best CEOs, university lecturers, nurses, farmers, entrepreneurs and other professionals in the world, but unless we have a well-governed enabling environment, at best we will have pockets of performers in a storm of rising intolerance and individual agendas, that is threatening to hijack the national agenda of #SouthAfricaComesFirst.

It does not need to be like this. I have just been reviewing the 2015 McKinsey Report that outlines South Africa’s ‘Big Five Priorities for Inclusive Growth’. It states that South Africa is capable of overcoming the current systemic challenges of poor growth, slowing investment and enduring poverty if it sets an ambitious new agenda.

This agenda can allegedly deliver 3.4 million new jobs and a GDP of 4.7% by 2030, equating to R1.455 trillion. The ‘Big Five’ sectors towards achieving this that the Report cites are: advanced manufacturing, natural gas (either imported or locally produced if viable), infrastructure, agriculture value chain and service exports.

It makes for optimistic reading but the fact is our country’s air traffic control is not performing or transforming in the manner that our new democracy envisaged. In October we witnessed the response to this when we lived through an event that will take its place in the history of our country, namely #FeesMustFall.

South Africans young and old are fed up with the systemic levels of corruption. This has many ramifications. Judge Dennis Davis, Chair of the Davis Tax Committee, has warned that South Africa is facing a tax revolt due to the high levels of corruption.

Hard questions need to be asked and harder decisions made now. For example, Judge Davis questions why SAA should continue to enjoy the bailouts that it does. The bailout in the last budget alone equates to the R2.7 billion required for the zero percent university fee increase in 2016.

We need to question the R4billion possibly being earmarked for President Zuma’s jet. Imagine if this amount could be allocated to a national bursary scheme, then our Universities could really fly high.

There is so much we need to question. Why are municipalities allowed to mismanage their funding and ignore service delivery? Why are the majority of our schools not properly educating our children?

In the midst of this, we must also question ourselves, and ask what we are doing to help improve South Africa’s situation. We can take a leaf out of Terence Goodlace’s (CEO of Implats) book, to forgo his salary increase or any short or long-term incentive bonus until the economic environment in the sector improves. December is, after all, supposed to be a month of goodwill and giving.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 366, December, 2015. It is reproduced with their permission.

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