Leadership: Quota Blues


September 24, 2009: The South African Air Force (SAAF) is falling apart. The most obvious aspect of this is the decrepit state of aging buildings, runways and aircraft. But the biggest problem is getting, and keeping, technical people. This is complicated by a government program to integrate previously all white institutions. This has been most difficult in areas that require lots of technical training and education. Like pilots and aircraft maintainers.

The government has set a racial goal for SAAF pilots, and wants them to be 75 percent black and 25 percent white. Currently, it is still over 70 percent white. The morale problem arose a few years ago, when the three top rated graduates of pilot training school, who would normally go on to fly fighters, were told that, because they were white, they would instead fly helicopters or transports. Three, less qualified black pilots would go on to fly fighters. When commanders noted the morale problem, and public outcry, they declared that it was no longer the policy to send the best pilots to fighters, but to spread the best pilots around to all flying communities.

The problem here is that, flying fighters is the technically most demanding job for pilots, and the best pilots only stay in the SAAF to fly fighters. If they wanted to fly helicopters or transports, they could make more money, and fly more often, as civilian pilots. So the SAAF is  ending up with less competent fighter pilots (which will probably result in more accidents), and fewer, and less capable, helicopter and transport pilots as well. Since the SAAF pilots are currently less than 30 percent black, the morale of most pilots will remain quite low until enough white pilots retire or quit, and 75 percent of pilots are black.

A similar situation occurs in other technical specialties, like maintaining the aircraft. Fewer whites are enlisting for these jobs, and more existing techs are quitting for civilian jobs. There is also pressure on civilian airlines to integrate, but the pressure is not as great, because politicians fly those airliners, and want the highest quality pilots and maintainers for those aircraft.

Even with the current situation, it won't be easy getting that many black pilots, as blacks with the skills to be pilots tend to prefer better paying civilian jobs. And there aren't many black pilots to begin with. In the long run, this won't mean much, beyond a higher accident rate for military aircraft, and some lost aircraft. This has been the case in other African countries, where most, or all, air force pilots are black. South Africa has no enemies in its neighborhood, and little likelihood that the SAAF would have to go to war.




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