CHIMWEMWE MWALE, Lusaka
WHO doubts that an airline industry is a multimillion dollar industry supporting many livelihoods and whose closure can devastate many lives?
In case you do, the story of Zambia Airways code named and once fondly referred to as QZ has somehow proved that lives were distressed after its abrupt grounding and privatisation in 1994.
Zambia Airways was created by an Act of Parliament to take over from Central African Airways (CAA) in 1967 by Government. It was split from CAA and become independent and was being run by indigenous Zambians.
In the â€˜eyesâ€™ and reflection of former Zambia Airways revenue accountant Webster Moyo, the story of the national airline which â€˜nose-divedâ€™ 21 years ago is sad and responsible for the death of over 500 people!
As an insider at the time the airline folded its wings, Mr Moyo now reflects on the whys and wherefores of the once vibrant national flag carrier in this interview.
Q: In your view, what could have led to the closure of the airline?
A: Our point of view as those who were part and parcel as employees and personally in the finance department, we knew from the onset that the airline was prematurely closed down considering the assets that the company had accumulated over time which outstood what it owed, so the closing of the company was basically politically motivated.
Government was also under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to get rid of all parastatal companies for them to access funds from the IMF.
Government in its own good sense came up with the idea of closing down the airline which was prematurely done and without considering the nitty-gritties of how to go about it.
Q: What should have been done to save it?
A: Looking at the assets the company had, they could have sold those assets to keep the airline afloat.
The other thing they should have done was to trim down the number of employees because at the time of liquidation, there were about 1200 employees.
They could have also looked at streamlining the operations and removing unnecessary routes. Looking at these functionalities, the airline should not have closed down.
Q: Highlight some of the assets that were owned by the airline?
A: Zambia Airways had houses where it (had) accommodated its employees in London, New York, Tokyo, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam, Rome and Frankfurt. Back home, Ndeke House where Ministry of Health is accommodated was also another property. We also had houses in the towns where we operated from.
These are some of the assets that they could have looked (considered) at for sale to keep the company afloat.
The overall picture of what the company owned (assets) was not considered because in the process of liquidation, that is what you weigh.
I should also hasten to say the company was enacted in parliament but was liquidated without going back to parliament to say we have now closed this airline.
So going by this, the company exists until the day when they will go back to parliament and say the company which we enacted in 1967 has now been closed down.
And this is where we have a problem as former employees because according to the laws of Zambia, this company was not closed because we do not know if they went back to parliament to report that the company we had enacted is non-existent.
We have always insisted that Zambia Airways still exists and we maintain that the company should not have been closed because the assets outstripped the debt it had accrued.
Q: How do you describe the â€˜nose-divingâ€™ of QZ and how were you affected as employees?
A: The closure of Zambia Airways is a very sad story and I will be frank with you to tell you that we have lost over 500 people who were employeesâ€¦they died of depression because they couldnâ€™t find employment elsewhere.
This could have been avoided. This affected our families, including extended family systems.
The fallout had a chain reaction, it was a harsh reality and this is the truth about it. Itâ€™s beenÂ disastrous, employees had to fight very hard whereby the then President Chiluba (late) had to address us at Chainama Hotel where he said houses were going to be sold to us at a reduced price, which he did and we are grateful.
But when you look at the payment (terminal benefits) from liquidation, it was so minimal and some individuals could not afford to buy houses. And for those who died, their children ended up selling the houses.
When you look at the liquidation laws, we were only supposed to be paid 20Ngwee at that time but we fought hard and went to see President Chiluba and he directed ZIMCO to pay us what he called â€˜a token from his good heart.â€™
I remember queuing up at NASDEC near Sunset Stadium to collect the little that the President had authorised ZIMCO to pay us, and thatâ€™s the money some of us channelled to pay for the houses. Those who could still not afford ended up selling the houses and became destitute.
Q: Lastly, whatâ€™s your take on assertions that members of staff contributed to the fall of the airline because they allegedly got free flights?
A: Let me state categorically that members of staff travelled under certain strict conditions stipulated under International Air Transport Association (IATA) Resolution 700, whereby they were able to apply for a rebate from the airline through the normal channels and at the airlineâ€™s discretion.
If today I apply to travel to Bombay with my family and the resolution says the aircraft is full, I will not be allowed to boardâ€¦so the â€˜mythâ€™ that surrounds this Zambia Airways story that employees were travelling amass is totally wrong.
We only travelled when there was a provision referred to as space availability.
For example, there was a flight QZ 802 to London and my two children and I were on board when a full paying staff with his children arrived on board.
My children and I were removed from the aircraft to pave way for the full paying passengers. Ultimately, the rule was that no member of staff was to inconvenience a full paying passenger and this was adhered to.
CHIMWEMWE MWALE, Lusaka