Southern Africa: cattle and colonialism
Historically, cattle are central to the lives of southern Africans in economic, political, social, spiritual and cultural terms
Human life, and human wellbeing, are tightly bound up with the flora and fauna with which we share our world, with the domestication of animals – sheep, goats, cattle, horses, even dogs and cats – for food and labour an integral element of the history of human settlement. And in southern Africa, perhaps more than dogs and horses, cattle have played a central role in the lives of homo sapiens; cattle history is closely connected to human history. Around eight millennia ago, in two separate domestication events – one in the fertile crescent (a region that included what is modern-day Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and areas of south-eastern Turkey) and another in India – bos Taurus and bos Indicus cattle emerged, respectively.
Domesticus is Latin for belonging to the home, thus human and cattle history cojoined during the agricultural revolution. The relationship between cattle and humans has been instrumental in human advancement because humans took from cattle dairy (bovine mammalian secretions), meat (flesh), leather (skin), and draught power (labour). Ancient societies deified cattle as gods, especially of fertility. Otherwise, humans conceived of cattle as reproducible, moveable financial assets. And in southern Africa, Nguni-speaking societies and Nguni cattle joined together south of the Drakensberg escarpment around 700 AD. Comparative historical linguistics suggests that, during the second half of the second millennium, generational and gender ethics changed in relation to the political and economic centralisation that accompanied a shift to keeping cattle among grasslands Nguni speakers.
Nguni lexical sets for cattle breeding and life cycles emerged alongside developments in the structure of Nguni human societies, including gendered roles. The increasing exploitation of cattle and goats enabled greater political and economic centralisation; Nguni speakers and Nguni cattle co-evolved. Cattle appear richly infused with meaning in southern Africa. Due to their domestication and therefore predictable availability, cattle, among other things, have bound together human social and familial relations via bride wealth (lobola), and opened human ancestral communication in ritual slaughter ceremonies. Cattle represented, and still represent, capital and cultural prestige, and myriad wars and raiding expeditions were conducted over cattle, while centralised hierarchical chiefly power was premised upon controlling cattle.
Jan van Riebeek’s mission to the Cape in the 1650s was to establish a merchant base and livestock supplies, and his journals reveal a sustained primary interest in acquiring bovines. Historically, cattle are central to the lives of southern Africans in economic, political, social, spiritual and cultural terms. And in southern Africa, colonialism radically disrupted and reconfigured the relations between local populations and cattle. Cattle and colonialism are linked in southern Africa. Consider some quick illustrations: after the great cattle massacre in the Eastern Cape in 1856-1857, when Xhosas killed around 400,000 cattle, historian Jeff Peires writes that the Xhosa “national, cultural and economic integrity… finally collapsed”. In Namibia, after the rinderpest epidemic in 1897, the Herero were significantly weakened and German settler colonialism started to consolidate.
In Zimbabwe, the First Chimurenga – the Ndebele-Shona revolt against Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (1896-1897) – failed during the rinderpest epidemic and Southern Rhodesia took its name in 1898. Cattle died in traumatic, writhing pain and their position in southern Africa started to undergo radical shifts. Since cattle were bedrock features of political, economic, social, and cultural institutions, rinderpest dramatically weakened these. The rinderpest epidemic of the late 1890s that decimated cattle populations across southern Africa facilitated the establishment and increasing coverage of colonial veterinary regimes and regulations governing animals, especially in South Africa. Here, the first colonial veterinary surgeon was appointed in 1874. In 1908, Arnold Theiler set up the region’s first, and the continent’s second, veterinary facility, which later became the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute.
By 1918 the Department of Agriculture spent 66% of its budget on veterinary services and research, and its Sheep Division (Union of South Africa, Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture, 1919). In the wake of animal disease epidemics, settler colonial state institutions became deeply involved in exerting formal institutional control over cattle, implementing a range of laws in the process. These laws implemented control over cattle fencing, dipping, brand registration, veterinary policy, quarantine and slaughter enterprises, fences, immunological and prophylactic research, national and local disease epidemic commissions and border guards, to name a few aspects. The arms of state started to control the conditions of human cattle ownership, cattle genes, their birth, health, movement, sex, and death. In cattle history, this was a major shift.
The political philosopher Kimberly Smith has argued that the expansion and consolidation of modern states was, in many ways, driven by increasing control over domesticated animals and in southern Africa this appears to be the case. Developments in refrigerated shipping and rail, and large contracts from the British army during the South African War, saw the emergence of a powerful mechanised animal flesh-producing monopoly – the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company – in the early 20th century. By 1925, Imperial Cold Storage had set up abattoirs in Walvis Bay, Bulawayo, and Lobatse and had secured decade-long export monopolies. Simultaneous to this, like other British colonies, the South African settler state became acutely interested in purposive, “scientific” cattle breeding. Between 1910 and 1918 South Africa imported 2,430 “pedigree stock” bulls and oxen and 4,574 cows and calves.
By the 1920s, there were five agricultural colleges in South Africa that had specific cattle breeding programmes, and sales of pure-bred “stock” from them increased from £7,303 in 1915 ( £744,522 in 2019) to £28,251 in 1918 (£1,592,000 in 2019). Focused essentially on increasing the monetary value of cattle (for flesh or milk), these breeding programmes had profound ontological and genetic effects on cattle. Similar shifts in cattle history occurred in Botswana during the early 1900s, while it was the British protectorate Bechuanaland, receiving its own permanent veterinary officer in 1905 and a stock inspector in 1908. By the 1930s Bechuanaland had 35 state veterinarians, plus stock inspectors and officers. From the 1930s, at Good Hope, Masama, and Leupane, the Bechuanaland Veterinary Department initiated “livestock improvement schemes”, which demonstrated husbandry techniques like castration, vaccination, and disease recognition, and provided bulls for breeding.
Bechuanaland’s first veterinary school was built in Ramathlabama in the 1950s. In 1965 the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC), a centralised and monopolised state institution for promoting cattle flesh exports, was constituted and became a major source of foreign exchange for the country’s economy. Paradoxically, as humans in Botswana received formal colonial independence (1966), so cattle were drawn increasingly into the colonial structures of industrialised animal agriculture (abattoirs, meat processing plants, tanneries) controlled by the newly independent state. Today, South Africa and Botswana have large cattle industries. Cattle frequently outnumber humans in Botswana, while South Africa’s cattle population has remained at about 10 million for the past century. Half of South Africa’s cattle live in rural areas. For rural cattle, life is radically different to that experienced by their kin who live in industrialised facilities with their intensive breeding, feed lots, and veal or dairy facilities.
I spent several days alongside free roaming rural cattle in Mdumbi in the Transkei region of South Africa’s east coast. The extent to which cattle in Mdumbi are free to consort and roam with their kin and herd is striking. Cattle there hold more cultural and social prestige. There is a compelling distinction between the lives of rural and industrialised cattle. Cattle born in intensive breeding facilities, confined in veal production cages or dairy factories, or feedlots, or artificially inseminated in breeding programmes then invariably goaded to an abattoir, inhabit an emotional and experiential world totally different to the free roaming cattle in rural southern Africa. A cow who feeds her calf on the Mdumbi beach, among her herd and lying on soft warm beach sand, is in a dramatically different position to a calf-deprived cow, who is repeatedly impregnated and intensively milked for her short, confined industrial life. Since cattle are mammals possessing the requisite neurological and biological hardware for consciousness and perceptions, plausible inferences can be made about how different conditions and historical shifts impact cattle’s lives and experiences.
This is one way to navigate the challenge of cattle leaving no written texts from which to construct the subjective aspects of their history. Though still chattel property, cattle herds in the Transkei roam unhindered, choose grass and plants autonomously, and are generally able to live and express behaviours in species characteristic ways. This sketch of cattle history in southern Africa shows that colonialism also had an impact on animals. A cattle history, an inter-species history, shows us how history has differently shaped lives of cattle, and that legacies of settler colonialism, such as industrialised animal agriculture, still affect their experiences across the region.
From Sudan to South Africa, archaeologists are only just beginning to properly explore the remnants of Africa’s magnificent ancient past
Meroitic pyramids at the archaeological site of Bajarawiya, near Hillat ed Darqab, some 250 km north-east of Khartoum. PHOTO: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP
“Pyramid diving” is an activity that you’d be forgiven for thinking was a dangerous extreme sport dreamed up by a reckless millennial. In fact, it refers to a new archaeological endeavour in the Nubian desert sands of Sudan. In early July 2019, the National Geographic television channel premiered a documentary about exploration of an obscure pyramid in Nuri, northern Sudan. Below the 2,300-year-old pyramid are tunnels and chambers that lead to the last resting place of a pharaoh named Nastasen. The problem for inquisitive archaeologists of earlier times – not to mention grave robbers – was the underground labyrinth flooding with water seeping through from the adjacent Nile River. “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” egyptologist and underwater archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman told a National Geographic editor, Kristin Romey, in July.
Creasman, a professor at the University of Arizona, is working with National Geographic to discover the secrets of this ancient African civilisation that probably rivalled the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians in advanced intellect, creativity and governance. Just weeks before, the intrepid professor had donned wetsuit and goggles, descended a flight of steps and plunged into the now watery tomb of Nastasen, the pharaoh of the Kingdom of Kush from 335 BC to 315 BC. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told,” he said. Visibility in the water at the entrance to the subterranean tunnel was zero due to the sand Creasman stirred up, but eventually he discerned stone features in the light of his torch as he swam through a series of chambers. Suddenly, he spotted what looked like a royal sarcophagus. It looked unopened and undisturbed. A glimpse inside that tantalising stone coffin must wait until 2020 when the excavation team hopes it will be logistically possible to open it.
For the moment, Creasman’s focus is on securing the safety of the lengthy piped air-supply system to divers because the tunnels are too narrow for oxygen tanks, as well as locating and removing easily accessible burial artefacts before teams start to excavate through the sediment and fallen roof stones. Given enduring public fascination with the likes of Egypt’s young pharaoh Tutankhamun, the opening of Nastasen’s sarcophagus has the potential to be a momentous global event – and could even be a turning point in international perceptions of Africa. The outside world’s view of Africa – and particularly its cultural heritage – is notoriously limited, not to say biased. “There is a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict – the coup, the war, the famine, the corruption – which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent,” BBC World News presenter Zenaib Badawi observed during an African history series that she presented in 2017.
This pervasive view – in the West and East – is informed by current events and takes little account of the rich heritages of earlier civilisations on the continent. Reasons for this include a paucity of paper-and-ink historical records and a legacy of European colonial attitudes of superiority and “civilising” zeal that swept away the memory and markers of the past. This situation was reflected in an infamous 1965 remark by the prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who declared that Africa is “no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit”. He went on: “There is only the history of the European in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre- European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Most scholars nowadays agree Africa does indeed have “history”; some argue that comparing it to European history is poor academic methodology.
Much of this history is slowly being revealed at ancient megalithic sites such as the pyramids of Sudan, the fabled Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe in South Africa and the Walls of Benin. Many of these sites are relatively unexcavated and under-explored and we can only wonder what revelations about ancient Africa await future generations. Sudan actually has many more pyramids than Egypt – about 300 of them at various sites in Nubia in the Nile Valley. The earliest examples date back to 2,500 BC and they were built by people who belonged to three great Kushite kingdoms. Made of sandstone and granite, sometimes looming black against the pale desert sand, they are generally smaller and steeper than Egyptian pyramids. The Kushites were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, commerce and the military – and competed with them; Kushite pharaoh Piye and his successors ruled Egypt for more than a century.
Unesco has described Sudan’s pyramids as masterpieces “of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years”. With such rare antiquities, Sudan should be a modern tourist magnet, with foreign cash bolstering the struggling economy. But decades of violent regional conflict have deterred all but the bravest tourists. The Tripadvisor website, for example, carries just eight visitor reviews of the Nuri necropolis from the past five years – most of them enthusiastic about the visual experience and complete lack of other tourists, but lamenting the abandoned and crumbling state of the sites. Similarly with Axum in neighbouring Ethiopia. The ancient city was the historic capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, a great naval and trading power that ruled a million square miles of the Red Sea region from about 400 BC through to the 10th century, and it is crammed with remarkable relics.
The Aksumites had their own written language, Ge’ez, and a distinctive architecture that incorporated giant obelisks, known as steles, the oldest dating back to about 5,000 BC. Christian and Muslim influences permeate through to the present day, while the place is trapped in something of a time warp, with camel caravans still to be seen setting off into the surrounding desert. The stele park in Axum contains an awesome collection of these towering stones, marking royal burial sites. Skilfully carved with doors at the base and storeys of windows above, stele look like sculptures of skyscrapers – though the idea of such buildings lay many centuries into the future. The tallest, the 33 m Great Stele, lies in pieces; it probably fell and was shattered during construction. In 1937, the invading Italian army removed the 24.6m-high Obelisk of Axum and installed it in Rome; it was returned in 2005 and re-erected in the park.
Ethiopians are adamant that the biblical Ark of the Covenant is safe and sound in Axum – in a small chapel built in the 1960s beside the ancient church of Our Lady Mary of Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Also in Axum are the largely unexcavated 4th century Ta’akha Maryam and 6th century Dungur palaces. There is also a great pool reputed to be the bathing spot of the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have lived here. Other antiquities are the Ezana Stone, written in Ge’ez, Greek and Sabaean, and King Bazen’s Tomb, one of the earliest of all African megalithic structures. Then there are the astonishing stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the secluded monasteries of Lake Tana, some of which are said to have links to early Christianity. With its historical marvels, Ethiopia has the potential for a tourism industry to rival Egypt’s.
But the decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, the economic and societal devastation of the communist Derg regime of the 1970s and 80s and proximity to the Sudan conflicts have severely constricted Ethiopia’s tourism dividend. However, recent signs of political commitment on various sides to resolving conflict in the Horn of Africa might see the situation change. Indeed, a flowering of peace and democracy across the entire continent might open eyes to an Africa different to the one routinely portrayed internationally. Great Zimbabwe is well known, such is its magnificence, but it might be regarded as something of a megalithic “outlier” when African heritage is considered. Few people outside Zimbabwe know of the spectacular ruins of the Kingdom of Khami to the south, near Bulawayo. These were built from 1450 onwards and contain the longest-known decorated wall in sub-Saharan Africa.
In South Africa, there are the remains of the 11th century Mapungubwe civilisation in Limpopo province, which pre-dates Great Zimbabwe, which have only been partly investigated in recent decades; the site was kept hidden during the apartheid years. This community had a sophisticated trading economy, powered by gold and ivory, which is epitomised in the golden rhino sculpture that has become an icon of democratic South Africa. These and other lights of ancient African history and culture are beginning to shine on the international horizon. A recent claim that the oldest man-made structure on Earth has been located in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province might attract some disbelief. In 2003 researchers announced the discovery of a meticulously arranged rock circle, dubbed “Adam’s Calendar”, which apparently constitutes a heavenly timepiece.
It is said to be 75,000 year’s old – far older than either Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The truth of these claims is to be determined. Yet this strange place will surely eventually stake a claim in the world’s consciousness of its history too, along with the pyramids of Nuri, the Stele of Axum, the Nok Caves of Togo and a myriad other megalithic marvels across Africa.
Sidebar: The first flight from Britain to South Africa
Lt. Col van Ryneveld with First Lt. Quintin Brand, February 1920, in front of Vickers Vimy Silver Queen, before their England to South Africa flight on 4 February, 1920. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS UNITED KINGDOM GOVERNMENT
On 20 March, 1920, two South African pilots completed the first flight from Britain to South Africa after a flying time of four days, 13 hours and 30 minutes. General Sir Hesperus Andrias van Ryneveld KBE CB DSO MC (2 May, 1891 – 2 December, 1972), known as Pierre van Ryneveld, was the founding commander of the first flight of the South African Air Force (SAAF). He began his military career in the first world war, in which he served in the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force), where he distinguished himself as a fighter ace. After the war, van Ryneveld was called back to South Africa by the prime minister, Jan Smuts, to set up the SAAF. Air Vice Marshal Sir Christopher Joseph Quintin Brand KBE, DSO, MC, DFC (25 May, 1893 – 7 March, 1968) was born in Beaconsfield (now part of Kimberley, Northern Cape) in South Africa. During the years 1914-1915 Brand served in the Union Defence Force. In 1915, he travelled to England where he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. During the first world war, he flew Nieuport 17 scouts, serving as a flight commander in No. 1 Squadron RFC in France.
Van Ryneveld and Brand left Brooklands in Surrey (one of the first purpose-built racing tracks ever built and the departure point for many aviation firsts) on February 4, 1920 in a Vimy G-UABA named Silver Queen. They landed safely at Heliopolis, near Cairo. but as they continued the flight to Wadi Halfa they were forced to land due to their engine overheating with 130 km still to go. The RAF at Heliopolis lent the pair a second Vimy and they continued to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where it was badly damaged when it failed to take off. Van Ryneveld and Brand then used a South African Air Force Airco DH.9 to continue the journey to Cape Town. The South African government awarded them £5,000 each. First published on Pilot’s Post, a South African weekly online aviation magazine – www.pilotspost.com. Republished with permission.
African airlines: the good and the bad
A history of government interference in African state-owned airlines has led to inefficiency and unsustainable debt levels, but Ethiopia’s done it differently
The arrival of the Iberia Airlines first
flight from Madrid to the city of Bata in
the colony of Spanish Guinea
(today’s Equatorial Guinea).
Photo: IBERIA AIRLINES
Running an airline is a complicated and expensive business. Pundits argue it is best left to those who know what they are doing. But governments across Africa seem to disagree, with most refusing to relinquish the reins of state-owned enterprises and, in most cases, compromising their ability to succeed. The African aviation space has been dominated by state-owned airlines over decades, and the continent is littered with the carcasses of many that have crashed and burned. Ghana Airways (1958-2004), Nigeria Airways (1971-1993), Zambia Airways (1964- 1995), Uganda Airlines (1977-2001) and Air Afrique (1960-2002) were just some of those that didn’t make it. However, there have been some exceptions. South African Airways (SAA) is one of them. In its heyday, it benefited from regulatory measures that afforded it the pick of routes and it was once regarded as the “high-flier” of African aviation, sought after by passengers travelling around the continent.
Its service was professional and safety record solid. But years of poor leadership, political meddling and overspending have eroded its advantage. By 2019, the airline had pulled back on many loss-making routes, and it was surviving on large taxpayer-funded bailouts. Another exception is Ethiopian Airlines, which has slowly and steadily become Africa’s biggest carrier, serving nearly 60 destinations in Africa, compared to SAA’s 25, and more than 100 cities on five continents. In its 2016-17 financial year, it generated $2.7bn in revenue, up 11% from the previous year. Passenger numbers rose by more than 18%. State ownership has been the kiss of death for most African airlines. National flag carriers continue to be desired in Africa by governments regardless of the cost of running them. Though they are regarded as a proud symbol of statehood to be maintained at any cost, most have ended up in the ashes, brought down by substantial financial losses.
African airlines have also historically battled to compete with European carriers and, since the 1990s, Middle Eastern airlines with deep pockets and an eye on the underserviced African market. In addition to the examples above, a few others have survived. Air Zimbabwe, launched in 1967 as Air Rhodesia and renamed Air Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, has done so against the odds. It has all the hallmarks of failure but the government refuses to let it die. Kenya Airways, founded in 1977, is another. It was privatised in 1996 but has battled to build on its position as a leading African airline, a weakness compounded by the aggressive push into the continent by international airlines, one of which was a key stakeholder – KLM. Its financial woes led the Kenyan government to announce in 2019 that it planned to nationalise the airline to rescue it from bankruptcy.
With SAA cutting back routes and raiding the fiscus to survive while Ethiopian thrives, the obvious question is what are the factors that have led to such divergent outcomes for these airlines? Why has Ethiopian been able to make state ownership work for it and SAA not? There are several reasons to consider. One is history. For all its success today, Ethiopian Airlines had a turbulent past rooted in its country’s challenging political and economic fortunes. Its management spent the better part of the 1980s and 90s fending off aggressive state interference in its operations. Political meddling brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. But, ironically, this experience has served it well in later years, creating a resilient and problem-solving management that remains focused on maintaining the carrier’s hard-won autonomy and allowing it to run the business as a commercial enterprise. The government does, however, retain an oversight role through a presence on the airline’s board.
SAA, state-owned for more than 80 years, had a comparatively easy ride, with guaranteed market dominance until the 1990s that put it well ahead of later competition. But instead of building on this early advantage, it has been weakened by poor leadership and overzealous expansion efforts. Management stability and performance has been compromised by increasing political meddling in later years, as it was with Ethiopian in the early days. Ethiopian Airlines has been constant but careful in its expansion, particularly in fleet upgrades. SAA’s current problems are said to have gained impetus with a big push into the African market in the late 1990s by the then CEO, American Coleman Andrews. The airline spent lavishly on fleet expansion to underpin this expansion plan, and sold off a stake in the airline to Swissair to give it access to Swissair’s then-extensive network within Africa and Europe. But by 2002, SAA had suffered massive hedging contract losses. Moreover, Swissair went bankrupt, forcing SAA to buy back its stake.
SAA also battled to build links with other African carriers. Its attempts to set up regional airline Alliance Air in East Africa and establish joint ventures with Nigeria Airways and Uganda Airlines were unsuccessful. Plans to establish a hub in West Africa never materialised. Ethiopian has always prioritised the African market, with a view to positioning itself as a hub for traffic into international markets. The airline has managed to build solid relationships with other African carriers to pre-empt rivals eyeing Africa and to provide secondary feeder hubs for the airline into the main hub in Addis Ababa. The country, a proponent of greater African unity, has put itself in pole position for a new push for intra-continental trade by providing an ever-growing network of air links. A stable, visionary and disciplined management is another factor that separates the fortunes of SAA and Ethiopian Airlines. SAA has had nine CEOs in the decade from 2009.
The revolving door of CEOs was almost matched by a similar trend in key government ministries such as finance. These changes undermined the potential success of turnaround strategies, which were almost as numerous as the CEOs. Mostly, the executives were brought in from outside the airline, lacking the requisite skills and history to counter political meddling. This was at its height during the 2009-2018 tenure of former president Jacob Zuma, whose close friend Dudu Myeni was appointed chair of SAA in 2012. Myeni presided over years of mounting losses, wasteful expenditure and procurement fraud, becoming untouchable until her removal in 2017. During this period, Ethiopian Airlines was run by experienced hands who had grown their careers within the airline. One of these is current CEO Tewolde Gebremariam who has been there for the best part of 30 years. Since becoming CEO in 2011 he has steered the airline through its greatest period of growth.
Ethiopian Airlines has prioritised cost containment, which underpins its long-term business plan. It has also successfully cross-subsidised passenger services with revenue-generating businesses that support its core operation and give it greater control of costs. These include the establishment of training academies, an aircraft maintenance centre and an in-house catering business, which are now core to its operations. Ethiopian’s cargo operation is now the biggest in Africa. In the case of SAA, cost issues appear to have been overtaken by political expedience. Now its extravagant spending and its inability to implement a sustainable, long-term plan have led it to the brink. Its other services, such as SAA Technical and Air Chefs, contribute little to the bottom line – 2.29% and 0.41% respectively in the 2016-17 financial year. SAA’s freewheeling expenditure on free tickets for civil servants does not exist in the Ethiopian stable.
Moreover, the South African airline is vastly overstaffed but held hostage by militant trade unions that are steadfastly against privatisation and staff cuts. SAA also has growing domestic competition; by 2017 its domestic market share had declined from 98% in its heyday to about 23%. With both SAA and Kenya Airways in trouble, Ethiopian Airlines is likely to continue its dominance of the African skies, but it is not without challenges. One is managing its rapid growth, which is having an impact on service delivery. It also needs to bed down its new African acquisitions and ensure these airlines add value rather than drain resources. But SAA remains a force in Africa’s aviation landscape. It has a fleet of 64 aircraft, 10,000 staff and flies to 25 regional destinations and eight cities outside Africa. Its demise would not be good for already patchy connectivity in Africa and passenger convenience. With a business-friendly president in place and professional ministers now in key posts, SAA’s $2bn turnaround plan may gain some traction.
Analysts have urged the airline to follow the Ethiopian model. Researcher Andrew Barlow, writing for the Helen Suzman Foundation, says: “The lessons for SAA’s shareholder are manifold and yet straightforward and easy to implement. An entirely new board should be appointed with a mandate to operate along business lines. The senior management team should be strengthened by the appointment of people with industry experience, who can develop the strategic vision to take the airline forward as a business. Then allow the managers the freedom to do their jobs. It’s not complicated.” Brenthurst Foundation Director Greg Mills echoes this sentiment. “The [Ethiopian] airline’s formula is quite simple,” he says. “They have a plan, they are cost conscious, and they are constantly exploring new routes and partnerships. In South Africa there is little appetite for doing things properly.”
The lesson Ethiopian Airlines offers is not necessarily how to run a successful state owned business. Rather, it highlights the importance of having a strategic plan and the willingness to implement it without having to pander to political expedience in what is already a tough operating environment.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: sustainable peace?
The recent thaw in relations between the two countries is embodied in the fears and hopes of people living in a disputed border town
Genet Gebremedhin poses at her bar in Badme, a disputed town on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, on 14 June 2018. Badme is a dusty grid of bars, coffee houses and little hotels that Ethiopia controls but which a UN-backed boundary commission says is Eritrean soil.
Photo: MAHEDER HAILESELASSIE TADESE / AFP
At first glance, Badme – a dusty border town between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, with an estimated population of several thousand people – looks an unlikely place for a border clash. Yet the savannah grasslands surrounding the town saw pitched battles that started in May 1998, involving tanks, heavy artillery, war planes, landmines and small arms, that left thousands from both sides dead and thousands of others maimed or wounded. A memorial for dead Ethiopian soldiers at the entrance to the town symbolises the emotional baggage that remains 18 years after the war ended. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant member of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition with the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF). The two were allies from the 1970s, when they sought to overthrow the military government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and cooperated until the defeat of Mengistu’s forces in May 1991.
The new TPLF-dominated coalition government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was the first to recognise Eritrean independence in April 1993, after a referendum saw an overwhelming number of Eritreans voting to secede from Ethiopia. The TPLF said it fought for the creation of a federal Ethiopia, and did not seek independence for Ethiopia’s northern territory, Tigray. The confrontation between the two countries that started in Badme was fought along a common border some 1,100 km long and went on for two years at a cost of an estimated 70,000 lives on both sides. The conflict ended formally in December 2000 after the two sides signed a peace agreement in Algiers – but 18 years of tense armed standoff followed, right up until July 2018.
Currently held by Ethiopia, but claimed by Eritrea, many on both sides will have wondered what the town’s fate would be after Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and longtime Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in July 2018. A boundary commission established after the December 2000 Algiers peace agreement ruled that Badme, which sits on the edge of a triangular strip of Ethiopian land surrounded by Eritrea, belongs to Eritrea, and the country had been calling for Badme’s unconditional handover for 16 years. In June 2018, Eritrea changed its uncompromising position on negotiations after the senior party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition EPRDF declared its unconditional commitment to the Algiers peace agreement. This was seen by many as an implicit admission that Badme belonged to Eritrea. One year later, Badme residents are suspended between the hopes of the peace agreement and fears about the town’s uncertain status.
Meanwhile, though, the town and its significance are rarely discussed in either Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, or Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The citizens of the town used to live “under the protection of the Ethiopian army”, with the ongoing possibility of conflict with Eritrea looming over their lives, says Beyench Belay, 60, a long-time Badme resident and mother of one who lives by selling basic commodities from her small shop. However, tension has eased somewhat since the July 2018 peace agreement, she adds. Nevertheless, Belay believes that Badme should remain in Ethiopia if there is to be a sustainable peace between the two countries. “We haven’t been told to vacate the town, although I have heard rumours on its ‘planned handover’ to Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. She added that, in her view, the transfer of Badme to Eritrea “would not be done easily”, given the lives that had been lost.
Belay’s view, however, is not shared by 18-year-old Martha Hadush, who has lived in Badme all her life. Martha (Ethiopians don’t have family names, but use first names and the father’s name) lives with her family in Badme and makes ends meet by selling a traditional alcoholic drink known as tella. She would “sacrifice” the town if it meant a better future, she says. “I look eagerly to see the day I can visit Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. “I wish for there to be sustainable peace and love, and if that means giving up on Badme, I’m ready to do it.” But she added that she didn’t intend to stay in Badme anyway; she plans to move elsewhere in Ethiopia in the hope of getting employment in the public sector or in another business. Such different views go back to the start of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, according to Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor and observer of Eritrean politics since the 1980s, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia.
Differences between the two former liberation groups, the TPLF and the EPLF, are at the heart of current disagreements, he told Africa in Fact. “The immediate causes [of the war] were many, including petty disputes between farmers along the border and Ethiopia’s belief that the [region’s] coffee crop was being sold off at a profit by Eritreans,” he said. “The EPLF’s attitude towards the TPLF (whom they treated as ‘little brothers’) and theoretical differences over Marxism also laid the seeds of future disagreement.” But the thaw in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations has slowed, with four border points that had re-opened since September 2018 closed on the Eritrean side without explanation. The peace deal needs to go beyond the personal chemistry between the countries’ two leaders, Plaut urges, and be institutionalised to avoid any repeat of the misunderstandings that led to the Ethiopia- Eritrea war.
Landlocked Ethiopia says that it wants a closer economic union, so that it can direct some of its foreign trade through Eritrean ports. This has been met by a stony silence from Eritrea, fuelling speculation that the peace has stalled after 18 years of “no war, no peace”. Eritrea has a much smaller population than Ethiopia and a stagnating economy and, according to a BBC report, some townsfolk fear being overwhelmed by Ethiopian goods. It is also thought that tens of thousands of Eritreans may have taken advantage of the temporary border opening to ask for asylum in Ethiopia. Some of these migrants may be using Ethiopia as a transit point to travel to other African countries in search of freedom and better economic opportunities. Much of the unpredictability of the situation may be due to the Eritrean leader, according to Plaut. “Isaias is notoriously fickle in his opinions, and it suits him when the situation is fluid and complex rather than rules-based. He wants to manipulate and control.
Abiy, meanwhile, has too many issues on his plate to really concentrate on his ties with Eritrea.” Plaut added that the border closures might have been avoided if civil servants had been tasked with reaching agreement on how the formerly disputed territories should be dealt with, and with drawing up proper rules and regulations. In a recent interview disseminated on YouTube, Abiy indicated that he thought that the need to “harmonise trade customs matters and the non-return of Eritrean opposition groups” were reasons for the closures. An Ethiopian government official recently told Africa in Fact, on condition of anonymity, that Ethiopia believes the closures from the Eritrean side are a temporary measure. The country has stationed customs officers at three border checkpoints with Eritrea in anticipation of a resumption of border trade. Plaut says Isaias will probably resist getting Ethiopian-Eritrean ties on a stable footing, but he is optimistic about the prospects of improved relations between the two East African countries.
“It is self-evident that the future requires both nations to cooperate and work on joint projects for their mutual benefit,” he told Africa in Fact. “Little really divides their peoples, who are energetic and dynamic.” Plaut’s optimism is shared by Belay, who has enjoyed a personal benefit from the diplomatic thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea: she was able to reunite with her sister after 30 years. “She came across the border from Tekemobia, in Eritrea, to meet me,” Belay said. Other Badme residents say that people from the two countries are moving relatively freely across the border to trade in gold, livestock and basic commodities, despite the border points being formally closed from the Eritrean side. This is probably an indication that the rigid separation between the two countries introduced after the 1998-2018 war will not return.