Kate Makhaga, 43, a senior technician who now works as a shop steward for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) at South African Airways Technical (SAAT), had an ecstatic experience in 2004 when she first fixed an aircraft. “I cannot even explain the feeling,” Makhaga says. “I felt like I am [Albert] Einstein. I was crying, not because I am scared, but because for me as someone who grew up in a village this was the best feeling ever.”
Now, almost two decades on the job, Makhaga’s health is deteriorating because of the difficult working conditions at SAAT. As a shop steward, she bears the burden of other workers’ fights for fair treatment. “Every day I am getting people who feel like they’ve been unfairly retrenched,” she says.
Many of the workers say that things began to collapse when the hard lockdown was introduced. The majority of SAAT’s clients were grounded, including the state airline, its main client. As a result of the pandemic and a lack of funding from the Department of Public Enterprises, executive members say SAAT was left with no choice but to lay off workers.
Almost 300 workers were let go through voluntary severance packages. But, according to the executive members, this number was not high enough to keep the entity afloat. A further 75% of the 2019 workers who did not opt for the severance packages were retrenched between April 2020 and late 2021. But Covid-19, the workers say, did only one thing: it exposed “a company that was [already] in financial distress”. One worker says the pandemic was used “as a scapegoat”.
Corruption, bad decision-making, problems in billing and procurement, wasteful expenditure, and excessive penalties incurred because of delays have all long plagued SAAT, way before the pandemic hit – as is corroborated by forensic auditing firm Open Water Advanced Risk Solutions (“Open Water”), the Zondo Commission and other enquiries.
When asked whether SAAT could ever return to the successful company it once was, one worker says, “Most of the people who have made decisions that have taken the place down still occupy those positions.”
The executives refute this, pointing out the dismissals of a few senior officials, which has occurred as part of an ongoing independent legal process. But it is difficult to trust the management team when the entity’s acting chief financial officer Wellington Nyuswa was implicated in the Open Waters findings. When asked about the scandal, Nyuswa says: “[I have] gone through the disciplinary action and came back.” He says his name was tainted as a result of his role on SAAT’s cross functional support team (CSFT), responsible for tender processes that have been the subject of both the Zondo Commission and Open Water’s findings of misconduct and corruption.
“What was intended as a penalty or a charge on my part was executed to its full extent. And it’s not that I had swindled money and I bought myself cars or something,” Nyuswa says, adding that whoever was part of the team “was guilty by association”.
When asked what this charge or penalty was, Nyuswa and Vincent Matlala – head of human resources – cited HR-associated confidentiality clauses that prevented that information from being shared.
Paying the highest price
The majority of SAAT’s workforce are older people unlikely to find work again. Makhaga has witnessed and heard stories of colleagues who could not take the strain as they went for months on only a quarter of their salaries. As a result, many of them defaulted on their debts. One retrenched employee says the price workers had to pay “can’t [be] qualified in monetary terms”.
A worker who was en route to a holiday with his family learned at a petrol station that SAAT had not paid him. Sympathetic colleagues lent him money to pay for the fuel. But when he got home, he locked himself in the car and died by suicide by asphyxiating himself on carbon monoxide fumes.
Makhaga has had to give fellow workers and family members moral support in cases like these. She and other workers who chose to bear the added burden of occupying representative roles have endured their own battles. As one worker says, “As a shop steward, you’re going to be the first one on the line.” This is the price of fighting for better conditions.
A friend of Makhaga and a fellow shop steward died of a stroke in August. “He was a strong guy,” Makhaga says. “They frustrated him during section 189, suspended and then finally fired him. But when you look at the merits of his case, we were sure that we’d win it at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). But while at CCMA he began showing signs of frail health, which started with a headache.”
Makhaga was herself hospitalised on 6 March. “I had a headache also,” she says. The hospital to which she was admitted is the same one where her fellow shop steward died. “It was work-related stress that took me to the hospital. I have to be honest with you, work is getting to me now. I have been strong enough … The doctor complained that I am not dealing with things properly. My immune system is just tired and one day it’ll just collapse.”
Makhaga and other former shop stewards explain that they have been “victimised” and repeatedly overlooked when it came to entry into certification courses that are a prerequisite for high-level qualifications. There is a personal cost, too: being caught between workers and management often means being villianised by both. “This side you’re creating enemies with management … and the employees don’t understand when you can’t come with a victory,” says another employee in a representative position.
Government’s failure to act
Terrance Naidoo was acting chief executive when the workers were retrenched and is now head of SAAT’s department for quality and risk. When asked if management was aware that their decision to keep the entity afloat had led to the loss of the lives of some of the staff, he says: “Objectively, were all of us, including myself … negatively impacted and affected by what took place? Yes. This was a global pandemic. All of us had to stay at home under level five and this had an impact. Have some of us dealt with it psychologically and mentally better than others? The answer is yes.”
Many workers found themselves singlehandedly supporting families, and the strain of salary cuts led to divorces and drug addictions.
The head of human resources, Vincent Matlala, who was a general manager and an executive convenor of the retrenchment process, says that the company managing to pay a portion of the workers’ salaries is a sign that they “took … a humanitarian stance. That tells you how caring SAAT is.” He adds when the public enterprises department gave the entity cash, it paid off all the outstanding salaries. He emphasises that management deserves praise as they tried to implement a number of wellness initiatives for employees.
But the workers’ experiences differ. One worker says, “I went for about three months without a single day at work … so nothing was coming through.” This meant that when it came to SAAT paying them their outstanding salaries, “for most of us, there wasn’t much to be paid back”.
The workers who endured a series of devastating salary cuts until they were retrenched represent one side of the equation. The other is those who opted to take a voluntary severance package during the retrenchment process. But before the retrenchments ensued, there were those who were “forced” to resign “because of the unbearable working conditions”. In the eyes of the workers, the management “obviously knew there was going to be this section 189, so they were trying to suffocate people as much as they could, so they could jump the ship to save [themselves]”.
What workers at SAAT went through is part of a larger, grim pattern playing out in the sector. According to Numsa’s spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, SAAT’s parent company, South African Airways retrenched more than 3 000 workers, while another of its subsidiaries, SA Express, laid off at least 800. Mango Airlines has also collapsed.
“We’ve been on the forefront for years raising issues of corruption and mismanagement at SAAT. We were ignored by the Department of Public Enterprises, we were ignored by the board, which failed in its fiduciary duty to act,” says Hlubi-Majola. “Now you have a situation where SAAT must be restructured and even that restructuring process is a process where workers are suffering, and executives have been protected.”
Executives say the restructuring and the retrenchments have also severely affected them. But only about 21% of 104 people in managerial positions have been retrenched. “You [can] see that there is a clear agenda from the public enterprises department, where it is the shareholder and final authority. It’s refusing to take decisive actions to deal with corruption, to move out the culture of mismanagement in our state-owned enterprises. It allows a situation where workers pay the highest price,” Hlubi-Majola says. “How does it even make sense that all of these entities are collapsing or on the verge of collapsing? It is an epic failure on the side of the government to intervene decisively.”
The Department of Public Enterprises failed to respond to questions despite being given ample time, including postponing this story’s publication.
In the run up to the retrenchments, Numsa called for implicated managers to be fired and for the board to be regarded as delinquent. It even took SAAT’s board to court after the Open Waters report, wanting those implicated in corruption to be held personally liable. “We have a real challenge … If the department refuses to act, I am not sure what other remedies we have as a trade union. And this is the challenge that we are facing as Numsa,” says Hlubi-Majola, who stressed that they have “done everything that’s humanly and legally possible”.
But still, there are seemingly no decisive corrective measures in sight from those accountable. What precedent does it set for the labour movement? “There should be outrage and anger for all of us, because workers in these state-owned entities suffer unnecessarily,” says Hlubi-Majola. “They just fail to implement [these measures] because there is no political will in making sure that workers don’t have to suffer … What kind of a government that acts like this, [with] an attitude of ‘I do not care’, a government that’s so neglectful?”