EMILE MYBURGH: How SAA came to resume flights to São Paulo
The relaunch of routes makes Brazil the revived national carrier’s first intercontinental destination
In the week that SAA, our “love it or hate it” national carrier, resumes its long-awaited intercontinental service with direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to São Paulo, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the significance of Brazil as its choice for a first destination.
The flights resume almost exactly a year since the re-election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil, making it the perfect time to reflect, among other matters, on Lula’s first year back in office. For Africa his presidency has been good news. He has already visited the continent twice in 2023, including a visit to SA at the end of August, clearly showing how much he values Africa as a business partner. It is therefore fitting that SAA’s first intercontinental flights are to Brazil.
Lula beat previous president Jair Bolsonaro by a thin margin, and he governs over a country that remains divided notwithstanding a marked improvement in living standards for poor and middle class Brazilians. Many supporters of Lula and Bolsonaro still don’t see eye to eye, but the animosity has subsided considerably.
I visited Brazil in February for the first time since September 2019 (when Bolsonaro was still president) and found the country to be far more relaxed. I heard anecdotally that supporters from either side now even date each other again, something that was unthinkable during the Bolsonaro years. And that can only be positive for everyone concerned.
No matter who was president the demand for flights between SA and Brazil never diminished, especially after the worst of the pandemic was behind us. However, in the absence of direct flights anyone who wanted to go to Brazil had no choice but to take long detours via Dubai, Addis Ababa, Luanda or Istanbul, at exorbitant fares. For most people that was impossible.
Brazilians and South Africans depended on SAA’s relatively cheap direct flights to Brazil to maintain family and business links. This is something I felt personally and professionally. During the now close to four years without direct flights my Brazilian wife did not see her family and lost her eldest sister during this time, while her elderly mother is holding on to dear life waiting for our visit in December. Many Brazilians here have similar stories.
With this in mind, in 2022 some pilot friends and I tried to charter SAA’s lone Airbus A340 for a weekly flight to Brazil. We approached financial experts, several service providers in SA and Brazil, the Brazilian embassy’s chef to cater for the flight, and even a Stellenbosch winery to sponsor wines. We presented this business plan to SAA, showing that even at half the other airlines to São Paulo we could still turn a profit.
They were immediately on board, presenting an attractive rate to rent us their aircraft. This plan created quite a buzz in the Brazilian community in SA, and I was inundated with questions about the date the flights would start. It even piqued the interest of the Brazilian embassy, which surprised me with a call one day to get more information. We then proudly presented the project to Standard Bank’s office in São Paulo for finance, but it promptly poured cold water on our enthusiasm, saying without explanation that the bank didn’t have appetite for the deal.
Perhaps Standard Bank’s closing of its São Paulo office shortly afterwards had something to do with it, or maybe, considering the precarious state of SAA at the time, the bank didn’t want to take any chances. But whatever the reason SAA was shown that there was a comprehensive business case to resume flights to São Paulo. I was told at a recent party in Sandton to celebrate the relaunch of the route that our work played a large role in SAA’s decision to make Brazil its first intercontinental destination.
Of course, it could also be attributed to Lula rekindling relationships with Africa. No matter one’s political views, if a president promotes business in a certain direction it makes financial sense to go there.
That two of the four weekly flights start in Cape Town (an international departure point that SAA had snubbed in the past) is also a recognition of the tremendous tourism potential for SA from Brazil and South America. Apart from high-value eco-tourism and wine tours, Cape Town is a popular destination for young Brazilians who come to the Mother City to study English or further their modelling careers. The Johannesburg flights will continue to serve the growing business community.
After an absence of almost two years Brazil has finally sent an ambassador to SA again. Benedicto Fonseca arrived in September, another sign of the thawing relationship between our countries. Meanwhile, trade continues to thrive. Brazilian-made Marcopolo buses and Embraer aircraft grace our roads and skies, transporting millions of South Africans and tourists around the region.
Airlink is a prime example of a business that is built almost entirely on SA’s relationship with Brazil. Its entire fleet comprises Brazilian-made Embraer aircraft that are flown throughout its route network. Not all businesses based on ties with Brazil are as visible as Airlink or Marcopolo, and those less prominent businesses also deserve support.
I have already experienced an uptick in inquiries from both sides of the Atlantic from business seeking advice on how to invest in our respective countries. In this respect the Brazilian embassy should consider renewing its support for all those actively promoting Brazil in SA as well as the reactivation of the Brazil-SA Chamber of Commerce, which floundered in the absence of a Brazilian ambassador to SA.
The chamber can and should play a crucial role in fostering new and current businesses and also act as a collective voice in addressing the challenges businesses face here, and in Brazil.
• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.
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