SAA: A Warning to the Working Class

Marxist Workers Party statement

Whilst South Africa has been on a lockdown, aeroplanes grounded and at least one airline worldwide liquidated, the struggle for the future of South African Airways has continued. Under the whip of big business, the ANC government is set to take full advantage of the global aviation industry crisis the pandemic has triggered. They want to break the workers’ resistance, bury SAA and create a new privately-owned entity parasiting on the state.

To set the ball rolling, the government refused any further funding, resulting in SAA’s Business Rescue Practitioners (BRPs) reporting that there was no money for wages beyond the end of April. The BRPs are expecting more than 4,000 SAA workers to sign termination of employment agreements on Friday, 1 May. The only way to interpret the references to “strategic partnerships” in the Department of Public Enterprise’s latest statements is that the partial-privatisation of SAA is being planned.

The Business Rescue Plan expected at the end of May will thus likely see some of SAA’s workers ‘re-hired’, almost certainly on worse terms and conditions with length of service erased. The rest of the workers will be thrown onto the scrapheap.

The heroic week-long strike by Numsa and South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) members in November resulted in a victory. The threat to retrench 944 workers was withdrawn. Instead of a 0% pay rise, workers received 5.9%, with a conditional agreement for an additional 2.1% in the future. Attempts to use the anti-strike provisions of the amended LRA fell flat.

Whilst applauding this at the time, we also warned that the struggle was not over (see here and here). Greater unity and organisation across the aviation industry was needed. But above all, securing the victory needed a campaign to mobilise all public sector and SOE workers in a united struggle against the government’s agenda of austerity, job losses and privatisation. The ANC government’s February budget would almost certainly provide the ammunition to place the question of a public sector general strike on the agenda. We encouraged Saftu’s leadership to position themselves accordingly.

But instead SAA stands on the threshold of either liquidation, or a brutal anti-worker restructuring. It is vital that the workers’ movement discusses and understands what has happened in order to draw lessons for the future.


We believe that the rhetoric in the Numsa leadership’s latest statements on SAA cannot hide the fundamental retreat they have made in the five months since the strike ended. Unfortunately they still do not put forward a genuine alternative that could motivate SAA workers, and the wider working class, for a struggle. Instead they deflect from the real issues and blame the BRP undertakers for performing funeral rites, thus providing the ANC government with an alibi.

During the November strike we criticised Numsa and Sacca for making the sacking of the CEO and the board their central demand. This sowed illusions that the problem was with individuals and not the entire pro-capitalist policy pursued by the ANC government in relation to the SOEs. We pointed-out that any new CEO and board would arrive with exactly the same mandate if appointed by the ANC government. To break through this it was necessary to demand the re-structuring of the board to include elected representatives of SAA workers, their trade unions and passenger groups. The organisation of the SOEs as profit-making silos needed to be rejected. In its place a model of socialist nationalisation needed to be put forward. Based on workers’ democratic control this would allow the SOEs to be integrated, achieving economies of scale and introducing important elements of economic planning.

Unfortunately, the Numsa leadership is now repeating the same failed approach. In place of the CEO and board, the new bogeymen are the Business Rescue Practitioners. The Numsa leadership rails against the BRPs just as they railed against the CEO and board. The suggestion is that somewhere out there more ‘competent’ BRPs exist that could be appointed (by who? The ANC government?) to defend workers’ interests and save the airline. This is a fantasy that disarms workers.

But the problem goes deeper. It is clear now that lacking any serious alternative the Numsa leadership has been forced to accept the basic claim of the ANC government – that SAA is not financially viable. They have even spoken of the need to get SAA back on to the “path of profitability”. However, the definition of what is ‘viable’, and what is not ‘viable’, is defined entirely according to the ANC government’s capitalist logic. Accepting any shred of that logic instantly ties Numsa’s negotiators into ‘concession bargaining’ – accepting that the workers must shoulder some of the burden of a crisis that was not of their making. Inevitably jobs and wages are put on the table.

In their statement announcing the end of the strike, the Numsa leadership itself proposed that all SAA employees be placed on the Training Lay-Off scheme. This would relieve SAA of paying 75% of its workers’ wages and pass the responsibility to the Department of Labour and its Sector Education and Training Authority. Unsurprisingly, the BRPs rejected this disguised ‘bailout’. In its latest statements the Numsa leadership continues to lament that this proposal was not accepted.

This was an extremely dangerous proposal. It sent the signal that the Numsa leadership accepted the financial unviability of SAA on the terms defined by the government. Sometimes the class struggle requires creative manoeuvres, even compromises. But there is a strict condition for these: they must always be openly and honestly explained to the working class for what they are. If they are not they disorient the working class.

Numsa has demanded an end to outsourcing to save the airline money. Correct and necessary as this is, it still only nibbles around the edge of the real issue. To this should be added, as we pointed out in our previous statement, a worker-controlled audit and re-negotiation of procurement contracts, especially for fuel.

What is surprising is that the leadership has raised neither this nor the fact that SAA owes most of its debt to a consortium of local banks who profit from the loans they have made. In the last two weeks the banks have paid-out dividends (profits) of over R20 billion for just six months of operations. The government has made itself the guarantor of SAA’s loans. Being forced to honour these loans in the event of SAA’s collapse would therefore increase government debt. Adhering to the strict logic of austerity, this is unacceptable to them.

In other words, SAA is being destroyed, with all the consequences of lost jobs and reduced pay, to defend the profits of the banks and the government’s wider austerity agenda. The same agenda that all public sector and SOE workers need to be mobilised against. To break through this it is necessary to demand the cancellation of SAA’s debt. The banks must write-off those loans. If they refuse they should be nationalised.

Socialist Alternative

Should SAA fall, it will have done so by the hand of the ANC government and its capitalist backers. Behind the ideological determination to privatise everything that moves, lies nothing more than the naked desire to give capitalists opportunities to profiteer. The artificial creation of a ‘free market’ in the SA aviation industry meant putting SAA into competition with its own offspring – the Mango, SA Express, Air Chefs, SAA Technical and SAA Cargo spin-offs and subsidiaries. Instead of lower prices, efficiencies and other alleged benefits of ‘free competition’, the entire industry has been plunged into crisis with SA Express likely to follow SAA into the grave of capitalism. A colossal squandering of physical assets and human resources – the training, skills and experience of thousands of workers — are being sacrificed on the altar of private profit at the expense of social need.

On the basis of a clear alternative to the relentless propaganda of the capitalist media, SAA workers, other aviation workers, public sector and other SOE workers could have been mobilised for a struggle to save jobs on the basis of a campaign for a complete reorganisation of the aviation industry.

There would be no guaranteed victory. The capitalist class, aviation industry experts and their media propagandists both locally and internationally, are united in their determination to bury SAA and along with it the idea of state intervention in the economy.

That is why the mobilisation of wider sections of the working class was the decisive issue from day one, and the centrepiece of the MWP’s position. But if, even after a broader struggle, the result was still defeat, the sights of the entire working class would have been raised and the ideas of a socialist alternative popularised. Instead, we are on course for a defeat that is not explained, not understood and will therefore likely have a demoralising effect.

The Marxist Workers Party is campaigning for the trade union and wider working class movement to adopt a bold socialist programme as a response to the economic crisis of capitalism and the ANC government’s programme of pay cuts, job losses, austerity and privatisation, both now massively aggravated by the coronavirus crisis. Unfortunately, such a programme has been completely absent from the Numsa leadership’s approach to SAA over the past five months.

In spite of Numsa’s dominance in the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party’s, the SRWP leadership has failed to take the struggle at SAA onto the broader political plane. For them, there are trade union workplace issues over here; over there are the separate political issues. Never do the two meet. Events have shown that radical rhetoric disconnected from concrete demands and a programme of action is no substitute for a genuine socialist programme that connects day-to-day struggles with the struggle for socialism. Socialism is not an abstract luxury but a practical necessity in the class struggle.

We are calling for the convening of a Special Saftu Congress and a Working Class Summit II as soon as possible. If workers do not correct the mistakes of their leaders on the issue of programme, more SAAs can be expected.We would welcome a statement by the Numsa leadership replying to the points we have raised here, adding anything we have missed, or correcting any mistakes they think we have made in our analysis. Let us learn the lessons! Even at this late hour it is not impossible to change course!