Change…we better get used to it

Think back to your parents. If they’d lived through and survived the Second World War they were probably not scared of much, and probably not fazed by much that went on around them.

Similarly, I am glad, as the world descends into anguish and chaos, that I started my working career almost half a century ago. Those nearly 50 summers have given me useful comparisons for survival today. Is there a main observation one can make after a blessedly long life in business? There are probably dozens, but the one which sticks out is that people learn very little from history. If they did they wouldn’t persist in making stupid decisions, again and again. For there seems to be the idea that to be successful in an organisation, you have to make changes all the time.

Take SAA, for example. Way back in the early 70s a one-way ticket from Johannesburg to Cape Town, economy class, cost R104. For that one was served a hot meal on the two hour flight, with metal cutlery, and free drink.
Over the years the fare increased markedly. But the on-board offering changed markedly, too. First to go was the metal cutlery, to be replaced with plastic. Then one had to pay for one’s drink. Then the hot meals became a sandwich or a roll. At one stage food was just about done away with entirely, to be replaced with an apple, a biscuit and a fruit juice. Then food came back, but with plastic cutlery. Then beer and wine was offered free, but one had to pay for spirits. And so on.

Today, of course, SAA is out of business, and on the few flights now allowed social distancing and mask-wearing is the order of the day, with no food or drink in flight. Who knows where we will be in six months’ time?
In 1977 the government sought to further protect the monopoly of the railways from road hauliers by introducing the Road Transportation Act (No 74 of 1977). This odious piece of law made it illegal to carry most goods over long distances without a permit, which was rarely given, with one exception.

It was OK to carry loads of anything up to one ton. Per vehicle. A surge in sales of one ton bakkies and trailers resulted (a trailer was seen as a vehicle), and the road courier industry was born.

But the transit time over long distances, such as between Cape Town and Johannesburg, by road was too long for urgent documents. And SAA, owned at that stage by the railways and the only airline operating domestically, prohibited the commercial tendering of parcels for carriage. So two enterprising fellows started an air courier business between the two cities. One had a flat in Johannesburg, and the other a flat in Cape Town and they would each catch the 6pm flight, one from Joburg and the other from Cape Town, with their collected packages in large canvas suitcases that were tendered as their luggage. They would sleep in each other’s beds at night then spend the next morning delivering parcels, and each afternoon collecting the next load, before flying back that night.

In the late 70s there was a fuel shortage, you may remember.

And the government’s response was to restrict the opening hours of filling stations and to reduce
the national speed limit to 50km/h.
In the 70s, too, you couldn’t buy booze after lunchtime on Saturdays, and never on Sundays. Illogical, nonsensical and ineffective.

I was reminded of this when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma decreed that smoking and drinking were verboten for the lockdown. Equally illogical and nonsensical. And ineffective.
At the height of the sanctions era in the mid-80s, with inflation running at upwards of 20%, there was a recession.

Today the talk is all about how bad the global recession of 2008 was, and comparisons between 2008 and today are routinely made. In South Africa, Trevor Manuel’s steady hand on the finance sector meant 2008 was a walk in the park, economically, compared to, say, the chaos in the US. But 1984/5 was a different story in South Africa. Factories were shuttered, businesses closed, and every afternoon the pubs were full of people drowning their sorrows. And when one was tired of drinking, one went to a matinee movie to pass the time.

Today, of course, the pubs and cinemas are closed, SAA is out of business, the petrol stations sometimes run out of fuel and the lights go off periodically. Things are worse than the 80s.
But there’s a bright spot. The courier companies are booming, delivering all the stuff those of us who still have jobs have bought online.