Comment

AirZim — nation’s emblematic disaster


IT is trite to say that governments have never been good at running businesses. This is most certainly true of a government struggling with its core business of governance.

Events at Harare Internat

ional Airport last weekend provide a graphic illustration of the argument that the state should stay out of the day-to-day operations of parastatals.

There was embarrassing chaos at the airport when the national carrier ran out of fuel and was forced to ground its planes and cancel flights. Government responded by firing general manager Tendai Mahachi and calling emergency meetings to solve the crisis.

Air Zimbabwe planes were back in the air this week but not before the incident had exposed the unmistakable parallels between poor corporate governance in parastatals and the administrative inadequacies in President Mugabe’s government.

Here is a parastatal which every Transport minister since Herbert Ushewokunze in the early 1980s has regarded as a personal plaything. He even got involved in designing the new airline’s colour scheme! That is when it made a profit and ran on schedule. Now it is an example of what happens when politicians can’t let go.

Numerous working documents have been tabled while the door to the CEO’s office has never stopped swinging.

Successive Ministers of Transport, not least the incumbent, appear unable to see that their degrees don’t equip them to run a highly complex operation. The solution which has been advanced to bring normalcy at Air Zimbabwe is privatisation or entering into a strategic partnership with established and competent international carriers. This has worked in the Kenya Airways/KLM linkup for instance. Kenya Airways is the model of a successful African airline that runs on time and encompasses routes to West Africa, Southern Africa, Europe and the Far East.

But our rulers, encrusted in the protectionist jacket, would rather see the parastatal grinding to a halt than cede control to private players or a foreign concern. The government’s whole psyche on the subject of privatisation of paraststals has shifted backwards over the last five years to the need to control all enterprises, despite the cost to the taxpayer. Lessons from the successful privatisation of Dairibord and Cottco seem to offer no incentive for the state to do the same with the loss-making Air Zimbabwe.

Then there is also the awkward belief that parastatal reform, especially the turnaround at Air Zimbabwe, can be achieved by “looking east”, notwithstanding the poor economics of flying there. Parastatals have become agents of implementing government’s flawed political decisions.

The costs to the economy are huge, especially the opening of new routes. Our rulers believe there is method in the madness of flying a single passenger across continents in a 200-seater plane. This excursion into folly becomes more intriguing when it is blended with the false fight to ensure “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”.

This government has labelled public corporations, like Air Zimbabwe and the National Railways of Zimbabwe “strategic”, the country’s “last line of defence” against loss of sovereignty. The state appears unfazed by the decay and virtual collapse in parastatals as long as they can be manipulated to fulfil a political role in promoting nationalism and sovereignty.

The Privatisation Agency of Zimbabwe, launched with pomp and ceremony a few years ago, has become another state monolith devoid of purpose. We were told privatisation had been replaced with commercialisation. There is nothing to show for this mantra other than corporate incompetence exemplified by huge debts and poor service delivery.
The mess at Air Zimbabwe is a microcosm of the state of parastatals in Zimbabwe. They are badly run and ministers entrusted to right them are equally incompetent, if not agents of confusion themselves. We should ask what State Enterprises minister Paul Mangwana has done since his appointment? Not much, other than providing another layer of useless bureaucracy.

Air Zimbabwe planes took to the skies again this week but real problems are far from over as long as political decisions continue to supersede business sense. Politicians, in a bid to get friends in their corner have forced the airline into opening routes to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore. This is pitiable for an airline with only two long- haul planes. The two Boeing 767s are overstretched and passengers are bound to be inconvenienced if one of the planes develops a problem. The three Boeing 737s and the two smaller Chinese-built aircraft flying regional and domestic routes have not been put to full use.

Air Zimbabwe, despite its record of inefficiency and limited resources, is spreading itself too thinly on the ground. It has to first get its act right on the domestic routes where disruptions are commonplace. The potential in the region has not been fully exploited. The airline does not seem to understand what it is really good at. This is a major weakness which requires government to think rationally to prevent further embarrassment. But can we trust ministers to get it right?