Just about every subsidised public transport organisation in South Africa could be regarded as insolvent. If government and municipal subsidies were turned off, and taxpayer-funded contracts were cancelled, they would shut down by next month.
Trade union Solidarity has announced its intention to have South African Airways (SAA) placed under business rescue. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear what its legal strategy will be, but, from a transport point of view, it could be an interesting test case.
Sadly, the Solidarity issue seems to be more about a union turf war at SAA, where Solidarity is not recognised. Meanwhile, all five of the recognised unions at SAA have rejected Solidarity’s proposed court action.
They have stated their willingness to be cited as co-respondents with SAA in opposing Solidarity, saying that a business-rescue process would not be in the “best interests” of the workers. At least they are being honest – it is understandable that they want to protect their interests.
My hunch is that the courts will avoid getting involved in what are essentially operational issues. When the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) locked horns with the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), I recall one of the judges grumbling that the issue was an administrative and executive one, not judicial. In other words, take your complaint to the ballot box.
In a similar vein, nearly 20 years ago, passenger groups in Cape Town took Metrorail all the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal – and lost. We could have the same situation here.
Nevertheless, it would be nice to see civil society groups continuing to trade blows with the operators of subsidised public land transport, and, perhaps more directly, challenging the three different levels of government that generously support them with funding.
Last month, I suggested that the South African Communist Party (SACP), which now holds the transport portfolio for the umpteenth time, should look into ways of improving the lot of the suffering masses it claims to represent – many of whom are victims of the spatial legacy of apartheid.
The SACP could start by looking at the many subsidised transport companies such as the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), the Gautrain, municipal bus operators, the various bus rapid transit (BRT) schemes and contract bus services, which incur huge losses and, like SAA, seem to be in need of business rescue. (At least one company pays a bonus of nearly three million rand to one of its staff. I wonder what for?)
I’m not saying that they should be shut down, but they need to start getting their combined act together to fix public transport for the benefit of the entire community. Can the SACP get the ball rolling? I don’t think so.
South Africans have become so desensitised to the inefficiency, incompetence and mismanagement of public transport that they have become oblivious to the harm being done to the economy.
South Africa should be setting a target of having at least twice as many people travelling by public transport. The benefits to the country would be substantial.
So, here’s a tip for Solidarity: take on SAA by all means. I hope you win and, if you do, it may give you confidence to take on bigger targets in road and rail transport. If you lose, take them on anyway. Millions of marginalised South Africans, who would not dream of joining your union, will thank you for it, even if they won’t admit it. Show up all the hypocrites in all the political parties.