South Africas Airway’s Struggle to Keep Flying


In 1934 the South African (SA) government purchased Union Airways. The acquisition of the airline included its routes and a small fleet of airplanes. From this humble beginning South African Airways (SAA) was born. Today SA’s flagship airline, SAA, is an international carrier that generates millions of dollars annually in revenue. The airline operates out of OR Tambo International Airport where it also maintains its principal corporate offices. The airlines has always been owned and managed by the South African government which is the company’s sole shareholder.

It is universally agreed that SA has a dubious and troublesome history of racial relations. In 1948 Dr. D.F. Malan and his Nationalist Party assumed power of the government. The party set about the enacted a series of laws that segregated the races along color lines. In this legally recognized forced segregated society whites legally retained and were granted vastly superior stations in life in comparison to their black countrymen. This hybrid social, political and economic system of racial segregation and discrimination became known as apartheid.  For years blacks lived and died under this oppressive system with little hope of every escaping the jaws of racial injustice. Blacks sweated and labored to drive an economy that benefited only whites. Black South Africans were forced to live in abject poverty with all of its trappings.

The international community would eventually turn its collective attention and weight towards SA’s apartheid form of government and the impact it had upon its black citizens. In the mid-80s various international organizations imposed a wide range of sanctions against the SA government and its businesses. As a result of the sanctions doing business with SA became if not impossible prohibitively expensive. It was believed that by the imposition sanctions the world community could force SA to abandon apartheid.

I do not believe that the debate will never end over the effectiveness of the sanctions in bringing about the dismantling of apartheid. Following a 20 year campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner under white rule, become the nation’s first black president upon the end of apartheid. He has stated that the sanctions helped bring down the political system of apartheid. On the other hand the white President who presided over the dismantling of apartheid, F.W. de Klerk has consistently stated that the sanctions did not force his government to negotiate the end of apartheid. Maybe both esteemed gentlemen are correct.

Professor Philip I. Levy who has held many high level U.S. governmental positions concerning economics while teaching at Yale University wrote a Central Discussion Paper (796)  in February 1999 entitled  Sanctions on South Africa; What Did They Do? In this work Professor Levy cites the relevant facts, arguments and offers a political and economic reason why the sanctions definitely changed South African policy towards apartheid. Professor Levy states early in his work that:

“Alongside this alternative case the paper will try to illuminate the kind ofarguments that one must make if one is to argue that sanctions were effective. The fundamental problem in assessing the role of sanctions is that the end of apartheid was over determined. Given the sequence of events, it is impossible to prove that sanctions were ineffective; they were among the many potential “causes” linked to the single “effect.”3 In lieu of such a proof, the rest of the paper will describe the sequence of events

In South Africa, consider what it would mean for sanctions to be effective, and argue that at best sanctions failed to interfere with the other forces that were bringing down the apartheid regime”

 I believe that the arms embargo against SA had profound impact upon the white government’s decision that the time to end apartheid had arrived. F.W. de Klerk and his ministers understood the futility a fighting a guerrilla war from without and within the country. Rhodesia fielded a better trained army that employed better tactics than the black liberation Marxists fighters could muster. Yet in the end the arms embargo prevented the Rhodesian government from prevailing in a long draw out bush war. The white government in SA understood the military obstacles that its Rhodesian brethren faced. And, just like Rhodesia, it could not count on Western powers to aid a military struggle that would help it to stay in power.

It cannot be reasonable argued that the sanctions did not have an impact on the operations of SAA; they definitely did. The U.S. Senate on October 3, 1986 overrode then President Reagan’s veto of legislation that would have imposed serve sanctions against SA. Not only did the law ban new investment in SA it prohibited the import of a long list of items and canceled landing rights for SAA on American soil. The Senate’s action mirrored legislation that had been recently enacted by the European Community and other nations. Because business between New York City and Johannesburg was so vital the SA government sued in Federal Court to have the cancellation of its landing rights blocked. After hearing and reading the arguments an Appeals Court  denied SA’s request for an injunction and allowed the cancellation to stand.

We must not forget South Africa’s geographical location. It sits at the southern most tip of Africa. I would say that it is somewhat geographically isolated. During the Apartheid era SA was far from its usual and few trading partners. Because of the sanctions SAA, regardless of transporting people or goods, was not able to over fly or land in many African countries. Globalization was slowly becoming a reality that SA could not take part in the growth.

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