FedEx. Picture: Supplied
FedEx. Picture: Supplied

Mike Higley, FedEx’s vice-president for Southern Africa, is originally from Atlanta in the US but has been living in SA for five years, ever since the logistics company bought out its local partner, Supaswift, and set up shop here.

Despite what Higley terms the "negative press" around SA at the moment, he describes the country as "phenomenal".

"My wife and I have had an opportunity to leave several times and we haven’t. We love it," he says. And, he adds, the business opportunities in SA are still immense — despite the grim headlines of 29% unemployment, growth of less than 1%, and service delivery strikes.

"Look, there is always risk in business," says Higley. "But there is more optimism here than there are risks right now. Sure there are challenges, but there are also great things going on in this country."

It’s a sentiment that prompted FedEx, which launched in Memphis in 1973, to do something this week it hasn’t ever done before: land its first 777 aircraft in SA, as part of a scheduled plan to carry goods in and out the country. Though FedEx operates 680 of its own planes throughout the world, this is the first time any of its all-cargo aircraft have been dedicated to Africa.

On Sunday night, 60 or so of its staff, as well as a smattering of politicians, were on hand to see that FedEx-branded plane land at OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg. Higley says it’s a response to requests from customers, and will service five countries: SA, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia. The plane will land in Joburg once a week, flying from Memphis via Dubai.

But realistically, what does having its own plane give to businesses that they can’t get by using one of the courier services that fly goods on any other commercial airline?

Higley cites a number of things.

"It means we can now carry dangerous goods, and oversized goods for customers. And it means we can connect anyone to 99% of the world’s GDP in 48 hours," he says. It means FedEx will now be able to carry poisonous materials, medical samples and fertilisers in and out of SA.

FedEx’s move may seem a small step, but it’ll be one bit of good news for President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose drive to attract $100bn of investment seems to have run into a river of molasses. It also means more jobs in SA.

As it stands, there are 1,050 FedEx employees in those five African countries, and the company says it plans to add more as the business takes off.