The brutal reality of South Africa’s gun culture, and how some victims are fighting back.
A woman is shot and killed and a 10-year-old girl wounded in a shootout between rival gangs in Westbury, west of Johannesburg.
This is a real incident. And every day, there are similar news headlines everywhere in South Africa.
Sometimes, they make it to the main pages, sometimes they don’t.
There are far too many to report.
The death of this woman angered the community in Westbury and put the area on pause, loaded with tension, as the locals blocked roads, burned tyres and threw stones at the police.
They believed the police were not rightly addressing the turf war in the area over drugs and guns, and the violence the gangs perpetrated against women and children.
In South Africa, a total of 2,930 women and 294 girls were murdered in 2017/18, according to crime stats of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The statistics have driven some women at least to enrol in self-defence classes. They say they have to.
We visit the Black Duck Field Sports Shooting and Archery Range in Honingklip in Krugersdorp, about 38 kms from Johannesburg, where men, women and children are taught to use firearms at the outdoor range.
Donne Oosthuizen is a regular here and has been working with the Community Policing Forum (CPF) since 2002. She joined the neighborhood watch under the Douglasdale precinct, in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, in 2012; with that, came the responsibility to patrol the streets to protect the community.
“I didn’t have my husband to protect me so it was about myself; if we faced a situation [where we needed to defend ourselves] and obviously protect someone else if they needed it,” says Oosthuizen.
All this stems from the fact that she has also been a victim of crime.
I’ve been through a lot of crime, I have been held up, been hijacked. My husband has had a gun to his head. I have two guns of my own, a 9mm and a shotgun, and I’m going to be building up my collection.
Oosthuizen has two daughters, aged seven and 10, and encourages them to practise at the shooting range, so they are not scared of using firearms if they need to protect themselves, and also so they are aware of the dangers of using them.
“If there is a situation at home where we are not able to protect ourselves because we’ve been shot, they can then protect themselves. They both shoot 9mm guns,” she says.
Oosthuizen is one of five women on the neighborhood watch, the youngest being 19 and the oldest 60.
The 34-year-old Oosthuizen has introduced her mother, Debbie Walters, to firearms too.
“I haven’t been happy that my daughter has guns but I understand that in the times we live in, we sometimes have to protect ourselves, especially as women. When it comes to my granddaughters…. [if the situation arises], the girls will be able to protect us if necessary,” says Walters.
As we walk the length of the shooting range, shots are fired from all directions,deafening sounds not rare in South Africa’s inner cities, except that this time, it has a different context.
Judy Holding is yet another sharpshooter at the Black Duck range who has been handling guns since 2016. She feels a gun is a part of empowerment as it helps women protect themselves.
“South Africa is dangerous and you need to be quite ready. We love this country, so if we are going to be here, we need to be prepared to live where we are,” says Holding.
She does not own a firearm yet but is in the process of getting a licence.
According to the law, before owning a firearm, a person needs to obtain a licence from SAPS; he or she will need a licence for every firearm under possession. The person is then prescribed training at an accredited training institution for a proficiency certificate. The process takes about six months. From there on, one can obtain a legal firearm from accredited gun dealers.
But are guns, really, the only route to self-defence?
Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) was established in 1995 with the aim of reducing gun-related violence and making a solid contribution to the safety and security of South Africans.
One of its founding members is Adèle Kirsten, who has been “a non-violent activist” for over 40 years now.
“1976 was my first year in university, that’s when the Soweto Uprising happened. So I joined the anti-apartheid movement. Most of my work during that time was around teaching people and engaging in what we called ‘direct non-violent action’. Basically, I come from a social justice background,” says Kirsten.
Today, Kirsten is the Director of GFSA and one of the biggest opponents of gun ownership in South Africa. She played a role in the National Peace Accord (NPA) during the 1990-1994 transition to democracy.
NPA was sought to end violence in South Africa and help establish a multi-party democracy.
That period was incredibly violent, she remembers. “More people were killed during that period than during the apartheid years. A lot of us were helping the country move through that period and into the first national democratic elections in 1994. It was also a time when massive [slug] guns were in the country.
“So we had a national amnesty in 1994 [calling to hand in firearms]. We didn’t get as many guns as we had hoped and we realized this is something we wanted to work on – a commitment to transforming our society.”
In 1997, she was appointed to a committee by the then Minister of Safety and Security to help craft a new policy for gun laws. In 2000, the Firearms Control Act was passed by Parliament which is still in place today. The numbers may have come down, yet, the statistics are brutal.
In 2014, reportedly, gun-related incidents overtook car accidents as the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries in Cape Town’s government hospitals.
Wemeet Tshepo Seboko, a 31-year-old photography and videography student at the Vaal University of Technology, who was shot and injured during a robbery in Soweto in Johannesburg. Seboko was home for the weekend for his younger sister’s birthday.
“There were three of us on our way back passing through a passage, including a female family friend, and a close friend. We heard someone running from behind us and made way for him. He suddenly stops, pulls out a gun and wants our phones.
“The two managed to get away and I was in a tussle with the guy. He ends up on the floor and I start to run. As I was running away, that’s when I was shot from behind. After he shot me, he came and took whatever belongings I had,” Seboko painfully recalls.
He was rushed to hospital where he spent 10 days and was told he might not walk again because of the bullet lodged in his spine; which he has to date. After 10 days in the Intensive Care Unit, Seboko was moved to a rehabilitation center.After three months, he willed himself to get back to mainstream life.
I just realized how beautiful the gift of life is after such a dramatic [incident], he says.
Seboko went back to school but didn’t complete his course at the Tshwane University of Pretoria because he lost interest. Things changed after he accepted the harsh reality of his life.
Fortunately, the man who inflicted such bodily harm on him was arrested a few months later, and in 2010, sentenced to 18 years in jail.
“I heard earlier this year that he was released. I have the anger for it, but ever since the incident, I have not let the anger overwhelm me to make me the same person that he is in terms of violence. So it doesn’t really affect me. I wouldn’t know until I come face-to-face with him. So right now, I’m feeling robbed not only by him but the justice system,” Seboko says.
Seboko quit his corporate job after getting himself a camera and went back to creative school. He loves photography and has been inspired by his friends. He hopes to turn his pain into creativity and awareness.
Trauma is never easy to deal with. Nthabiseng Mogale, a 25-year-old qualified paramedic in Johannesburg, has saved countless lives working out of an emergency room on wheels.
She talks about trauma management in transit. “If a patient was shot and is conscious, it’s easier because you can communicate. We try stabilizing the gun wounds, controlling the bleeding and if the patient is in too much pain, we get medication into the body using drips to be able to move the patient on to a spine board, called a stabilization board. This board minimizes pain and stabilizes the neck and the spine,” says Mogale.
Women and children continue to be vulnerable to gun-related crimes. With the festive season approaching, the numbers are likely to go up. A police officer working in central Johannesburg, who does not want to be named, says the only solution is more “visible policing”.
“There are more operations now, and roadblocks to stop criminals, and there’s more patrolling in the malls,” he says.
Yet, will the guns ever go silent in South Africa?
According to 2018 statistics by Gun Free South Africa(GFSA), women make up 11% of gun-related murder victims. Guns are also used to injure, threaten and intimidate.
• Women are most at risk of being shot in their home by their intimate partner.
• Most victims have been threatened with a firearm before being shot. The four main types of threatening gun-related behaviour by men are:
1) Threatening to shoot their partner
2) Cleaning, holding or loading a gun during an argument
3) Threatening to shoot a person or a pet the partner cares about
4) Shooting a gun during an argument.
• Intimate partner violence and gun deaths are particularly high in families where men use a gun for work, such as in the police, army or private security industry.
• Two national studies of femicide (the murder of women) show that the number of women killed by their intimate partner (called intimate femicide) has dropped from four women a day in 1999 (an average of one woman being killed every six hours) to three women a day (one every eight hours) in 2009. Researchers attributed this decline to the Firearms Control Act (2000).
• Men make up 89% of gun murder victims in South Africa.
• Men living in metro areas have a “notably higher” rate of murder.
• Murder rates are highest in the 15–29 years age group.
• 23 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.
138 people survive a gunshot every day in South Africa,often with severe disabilities closely associated with spinal cord injury. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies trauma, specifically motor vehicle accidents, as the leading cause of such injuries worldwide, followed by falls and violence. However, according to the WHO, South Africa has a very high violence-related traumatic spinal cord injury rate in 2018.
Refugees: The Nowhere People
The displaced and their search for identity and belonging; the migrant mother and the forgotten daughters who take the brunt of it all.
There are 65.3 million displaced people worldwide. Of those people, 21.3 million are refugees, the people who belong to – Nowhere. No one knows where they come from, no one knows where they’re going. Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, has highlighted that: “We are facing the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.” He has called it a crisis of solidarity.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Global Trends report shows that since 2003, the number of newly-displaced people per minute has increased from just fewer than 10 to 24 persons in 2015. In 2014, the number was at its highest – 30.
The reasons for displacement differ. Increasingly, the main reason is fleeing the source of political or economic conflict. It then becomes difficult to imagine the uncertain reality the many have run to or are left to live through. In theory, international law defines and protects refugees, encouraging the initiation of asylum procedures once they enter a new environment. In reality, the many who have migrated become nomads, often pursuing what becomes a hollow quest for a better life.
Women and girls form around 50% of refugees or displaced people around the world. In Africa, the number of women uprooted by war and unrest is significantly higher. A study published by Hivos International recorded 80% of refugees in Lebanon were women and children.
Along the inner streets of Johannesburg, are ‘foreigners’, women selling fruit, vegetables and sundry items to feed their hungry children and themselves. Whilst walking up to the Department of Social Development, two young female hawkers ran past me, clutching towels in one hand and tacky sunglasses and cellphone pouches on the other, feeling cops. As is the case with hundreds of immigrants, they have no papers.
Another, a lady, sits rubbing her pregnant belly beside a small stall on Eloff Street. She sells hats, wallets, purses and scarves. She is reluctant to talk and asks not to be named. She came to South Africa following her husband escaping the political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“I came after he had made his way to what we were calling the land of milk and honey… [but] when I arrived in South Africa, it was made known to me that he had left for Canada. I’d come for nothing.”
Abandoned, she was forced to join the informal trading business.
“Life is hard here. We as foreigners are just not free. People don’t respect us and just steal our stock,” she says with little emotion.
After matriculation, she had gone on to acquire a degree in management in the DRC. But today, she is battered and broke.
Often, along their treacherous journey, the women are abused and mishandled by gangs, truck drivers and cops. This is only the beginning of their travails. The constitutional guarantees cannot protect them from the injustices they face. The UNHCR has highlighted that life for a woman beyond her country of origin, becomes a constant battle and one of constant fear and uncertainty.
One of the many dangers is the xenophobic attacks, as has happened in recent times, with South Africans accusing foreign nationals of taking their jobs and over-populating their areas.
The informal trading sector is the main space in which the hateful disputes unfold. But for foreign nationals who have no other hope, informal trading becomes the only option.
Vanya Gastrow, a PhD candidate currently doing research for the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), says one of the biggest challenges faced by foreign traders who come to South Africa is the crime targeted at them.
Other challenges include lack of access to reliable documentation. Says Gastrow: “Asylum seekers and refugee permits often don’t meet documentation requirements for banks, visa offices, and landlords.” She says such foreigners cannot open bank accounts or access loans.
“These permits also require frequent renewals and so many make the decision to just live without them.”
For women though, it is even worse.
“It’s the sexual violence … and extortion, specific dangers that authorities fail to understand,” according to Penny Foley, a volunteer from Australia currently living in South Africa. She highlights that the objectification of female refugees is one of the many symptoms of what has become the de-humanizing process of forced migration.
“The global community needs to change the 20th century understanding of a nation-state and move away from the notion of isolated nationalities”, she says.
“Interestingly though, the problem is not just about changing the perception of what nationals think of foreign nationals, relations amongst refugees need to be established. The fight becomes harder if unity lacks amongst them.”
Women and girls form around 50% of refugees or displaced people around the world.
In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA speaks to three women from Zimbabwe; what displacement has done to them.
“I just stood at the border in my pink shirt and panties after I had crossed over. I had nothing and I was scared.”
*Tafadzwa Shumba is 42 and came to South Africa in 2008. She was forced to leave her country, Zimbabwe, because of the political instability that made life for her and her family unbearable.
“I was seen to be too neutral so they threatened my parents and tried to kill me for not engaging in their dirty politics.”
The choice to leave was not an easy one to make but as she recalls, “I literally had to take that leap of faith”.
On July 27, 2008, as the world slumped to a financial crisis, Shumba packed a portable bag. She had R300 ($21) that would pay the ‘Guma-Gumas’, a group of men said to assist escapees across the woods to the border.
“I had a passport but those days we were using visas and they were expensive so my only choice was to cross over illegally.” She was the only woman amongst seven guys.
The group began the three-day walk through the forests, the Limpopo River, eventually reaching the border.
Few survive the trek but Shumba’s determination carried her.
“I don’t forget, as we walked through the forest we saw dead bodies. There was a human head lying on the ground with dreadlocks like mine,” says Shumba, running her fingers through her own.
“The Guma-Gumas picked it up and pointed it at us and said if you don’t give us your money you will end up like this head.”
“They took everything, even my pants and left me with there in my pink shirt, panties and shoes.” There was no time to process the betrayal. The trek had to continue.
“Look at me,” she says, as she gestures to her body. “I am nothing. I was a nurse, we would wear crisp white uniform and after work, I had a home to go to.”
Last year, she was involved in a road accident in South Africa that left her crippled.
“I could not even get compensation from the Road Accident Fund because I am a foreigner.”
Now, because of her disability, she cannot work so she takes care of children and sells fruits and vegetables when she is desperate for money. The future is uncertain but she takes “each day as it comes”.
There was a human head lying on the ground with dreadlocks like mine.”
“Coming to South Africa was supposed to be like going to heaven,” says *Tapiwa Moyo who is 22 years old and from Zimbabwe. When her mother, her only caregiver, left her and her younger sister to find work in Johannesburg, she did not anticipate the hardship.
“At one stage we went without food for almost a week and we had to start selling my mother’s belongings to get some money to buy some maize meal.”
Moyo’s mother saw South Africa as the place where she could try and build a better life for her children.
“The deal was that she would work for a few months, save the money and get us passports and visas to move to South Africa.”
The months passed and then they turned into years. When their supply of cash and food ran dry, Moyo, as the older sister, still in her early teens, was forced to work menial jobs washing clothes, selling nuts and chips and eventually having to part with all their worldly possessions to survive.
“I would see other children playing with teddy bears and Barbie dolls or walking in the streets with their mothers and I would just cry because that’s all I wanted to do,” she weeps.
She was 15 when she received word that her mother had finally made enough money to bring her and her sister to South Africa. They had waited seven years.
“When I finally got my passport, it was like my prayers were finally answered.”
The bus ride was one filled with excitement.
“It was a 12-hour ride but I couldn’t even sleep. My life was about to change.”
She recalls the moment she arrived.
“Everything I thought was a lie, South Africa was supposed to be my heaven but it was not.”
She wipes her tears with anger, not allowing herself to be weak.
“I’ve cried about it all for so long you know and nobody cares … the tears don’t mean anything.
My name meant nothing to the border police and some of the citizens. I was just another ‘kwere-kwere’.”
Since then, that’s all she’s known apart from poverty. Just as she did in Zimbabwe, Moyo finds and sells what she can to ensure she and her daughter do not go to bed hungry each day.
“I left one hell for another. Would I like to be back home with my family? Sure, but that’s no longer an option for me. I’m here now.”
At some point, I fell to the ground and started to scream ‘I am tired’.”
*Emily Shamu came to South Africa when her daughter, Lisa, was a toddler.
“She was too heavy for me to carry along with our luggage and a gentleman offered to carry her when we crossed the Limpopo River,” she says.
She would normally not have trusted a stranger, but for Shamu, the focus was survival.
Shamu and the others walked 12 hours to Messina, the northernmost town in South Africa’s Limpopo province.
“I did not know we were going to walk for so long. At some point, I fell to the ground and started to scream ‘I am tired’.”
She describes her knees colliding with the gravel road. Her daughter watched as she cried uncontrollably. “My child remembers. We rested for some time and I used this time to remind myself (sic) why I was going through this.”
Now, living in South Africa for eight years as a refugee, her life is defined by a cycle of begging – not for food or spare change – but, each quarter of the school year, to plead with the headmaster to allow her daughter to sit her exams with her peers.
“Every term, my heart sinks… I don’t know if he will say yes. We are just controlled by circumstances.”
In South Africa, students are required to produce a form of identification before they are allowed to partake in written assessments. Because Shamu has no asylum papers, she is unable to apply for an ID document for her daughter.
“If I’m honest, I have not tried to get my papers,” she says. “I tried in 2010 and the back and forth is just so demoralizing. “ Shamu and her daughter live stateless with nothing to ensure stability.
“I want to go home, if the situation can just change…”
Interestingly though, the problem is not just about changing the perception of what nationals think of foreign nationals, relations amongst refugees need to be established. The fight becomes harder if unity lacks amongst them.”
Refugees Seen As ‘The Other’
The story of a Vietnamese immigrant
Lisa Phung, her mother and older sister hid in a mosquito and disease-infested swamp during the day and in the night were led onto a small boat that took them to a main fishing boat which would eventually transport them to their new lives.
Earlier, Phung’s mother had received instruction from her father to leave Vietnam as their freedom was under threat. He was a pilot who had just been captured by communist soldiers in the Vietnam War. Her mother who was not educated enough for a stable job heeded her husband’s call and managed to secure the money to get her and her girls out of war-torn South Vietnam.
“People smugglers” were paid to get them out.
“The first two times, we got caught and jailed,” says Phung. The third time they got lucky.
“Enroute to the fishing boat, we got robbed by the people smugglers and everything was taken except for a few pieces of food.”
But at least they got onto the big boat.
“We were crammed up like anything and I was one of the youngest at age four.”
Shortly after they started, the boat’s engine died.
“They thought it was a petrol problem but the people smugglers had taken the petrol and replaced the tank with water.”
The group of people floated for 10 days with nothing more than the packet of rice.
“My mother remembers that I was starting to die … everyone was getting ready for death.”
Shortly before a storm, a British cargo ship sailed past and for a few moments there was hope of survival.
“It didn’t stop to save us and that was heart-breaking because we lost hope.”
It was as though their fate was sealed but then, in a surprise move, the ship turned around and carried the refugees, Phung and her family amongst them, to Singapore.
“After the ordeal, my mum told me she lost hope in a lot of human beings because everyone just looked out for themselves.”
Because Phung’s mother had children, she was the last to be rescued.
“She was the last person off that boat; it must have been horrifying for her.”
The ship docked in Singapore. From there, the refugees were taken to a detention center in Hong Kong where they stayed for three years.
“My mum wanted to go to the USA but they were no longer taking refugees.”
Sometime later, Australia was accepting refugees. Phung was seven years old and finally a life of some stability awaited her.
Years have passed. She now lives in Australia with a family of her own and uses her experience to give hope to others who have walked her path.
“I’ve seen how refugees are seen as ‘the other’ in different parts of the world, coming to take their jobs or their land and they really just want a safe place to live and everyone should have that right.”
Misplaced In Their Own Space
How a community in Western Algeria live like refugees, in their own land.
isolated from the world and within their own state, this has been the plight of the Saharawi people living in refugee camps in Western Algeria for the last 41 years. They face human rights injustice, but unlike other global refugees, it is on their own land.
The Polisario movement, the voice of the Saharawi ethnic group, says the territory reported to be illegally occupied by Morocco belongs to the Saharawi people.
For years following a guerrilla war, they have tried and failed to claim ownership of the land from the Moroccan government with no success. Now, according to the United Nations, they live in mud brick houses and tents in the harsh desert conditions of Tindouf Province, Western Algeria.
They have been locked in an armed struggle for liberation. At the forefront of the movement are the Saharawi women who have increased their traditional role in the fight not only to reclaim their territory but to also salvage their self-determination as a people.
According to Catherine Constantinides, a human rights activist and executive director of Miss Earth South Africa, the power structure is unlike any other on the globe, particularly in Muslim culture. “Women have a strong hold in the camps; they double as caregivers as well as liberation fighters. They also invest heavily in themselves educating one another and learning various skills. They exert the power there and the men respect this because they hold the camps together.”
Constantinides who has dedicated her efforts to bringing to the fore their plight emphasizes the world cannot fathom the dire conditions faced by the Saharawi people “until you see it”.
“The Saharawi people have less than nothing,” she says. On one her many visits to the region, Constantinides witnessed the dehumanizing process of the people getting food dropped from the skies as by aeroplanes and water delivered in huge trucks. The men cannot provide for their families and their children just watch each time as they reach out to the skies to catch what they can.
This is just one illustration of the wide socio-economic gap and the gap between humanity and policy regulations that leave the Saharawi people living in a constant state of statelessness and discomfort.
Moreover, there are no adequate health facilities for them.
“Child mortality is at its highest in Tindouf as women are forced to give birth in their mud houses or tents,” explains Constantinides.
“It’s devastating because children bring that spark of hope within that unfortunate situation.”
United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has since visited the refugee camps as an effort to reinitiate negotiations in the region to end the dispute and to bring liberation to the Saharawi people. During his visit, he said he “would spare no effort towards a just and meaningful solution” for the people in Western Algeria.
These are the kind of efforts activists like Constantinides want to see in the fight against the global neglect of refugees. “We have to find better ways of dealing with the crisis.”
One example which Constantinides makes reference to is the naturalization process that she witnessed earlier this year in Virginia, America, on the 4th of July.
“This was an example of how in time systems can work if applied to crises to give people dignity.”
“We have to bring the concept back of supporting each other instead of building walls,” she sighs.
Until such time, the Saharawi people will continue the taxing fight for their statehood, led by the women who Constantinides says will never give up
Mysterious Object Under Moon’s Largest Crater Found By Scientists
An unknown, mysterious mass has been found beneath a crater on the moon, according to researchers at Baylor University—and it may give scientists clues into how the moon was shaped.
- Researchers discovered an unknown anomaly roughly five times the size of Hawaii’s largest island.
- The mass is sitting beneath one of the largest preserved craters in the solar system, the South Pole-Aitken basin.
- A plausible guess by scientists: The mass is a piece of metal left behind nearly 4 million years ago by the asteroid that formed the crater.
The mysterious mass sits more than 300 km (186 miles) underneath the solar system’s largest crater. The crater isn’t visible to the naked eye because it’s on the far side of the moon, which always faces away from Earth.
While the researchers who discovered the mass don’t know what it is or where it came from, computer simulations suggest that, under the right conditions, a large asteroid’s iron-nickel core could have been embedded inside the moon upon impact almost 4 million years ago.
Another possibility, according to researchers, is that the mass consists of oxides left over from when the moon was changing from a large ocean of molten magma to what it is today.
-Rachel Sandler; Forbes Staff
Why Mitsubishi Heavy May Want Bombardier’s Money-Losing CRJ Regional Jet Line
Bombardier may be close to completing its exit from the airliner business, confirming Wednesday morning that it’s holding talks with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to sell its once-mighty CRJ regional jet line. For Mitsubishi Heavy, which has struggled to make the climb from an aircraft component supplier to a jet maker, the deal may be less about the money-losing CRJ than acquiring its extensive service network.
Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Heavy is years behind schedule on the MRJ, a twin-engine regional jet that was initially expected to be launched in 2013 with Japanese airline ANA. With certification of the 90-seat version believed to be on track for 2020, acquiring the competing CRJ program would solve the knottiest remaining problem for Mitsubishi: product support and maintenance, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group. “They have no experience at that, and no infrastructure,” he says.
The sale talks were first reported by The Air Current.
Montreal-based Bombardier created the regional jet market in 1989 when it launched the CRJ, which was a stretched, 50-seat version of the Challenger business jet that it had acquired a few years prior when it first got into aerospace by buying the struggling aircraft maker Canadair from the Canadian government. With jet fuel cheap in the 1990s, U.S. airlines snapped up the CRJ to replace propeller-driven planes on short-haul routes serving smaller cities. Bombardier has sold 1,950 CRJs, but sales slowed in the early 2000s as oil prices climbed and airline consolidation shrank route networks.
Bombardier had 51 outstanding orders for the aging airframe as of March 31, a backlog that should be worked through by 2020. Bombardier refreshed the CRJ in recent years with a new cabin design, but its seventies-vintage General Electric engines are inefficient by modern standards, and it’s not clear if the plane could be retrofitted with newer ones.
What’s kept sales trickling along has been the persistence of so-called “scope clauses” in U.S. airlines’ labor contracts with their pilots, which restrict the major carriers from contracting with regional airlines for flights of planes above 76 seats and a maximum takeoff weight of 86,000 pounds. With the MRJ, Mitsubishi made a losing bet that the scope clauses would be relaxed by the time it came into service: the MRJ90 is too big to be used in the U.S. now. Embraer made the same miscalculation with its new E2 regional jet line.
Mitsubishi has been working on a 70-seat version, but that project is reportedly going through a redesign that could delay it until 2023.
United and Delta pilots are negotiating new contracts, and American and Southwest’s agreements are up in 2020, but it’s unclear whether the airlines will be able to win relaxation of the scope clause restrictions.
It’s also unclear whether Mitsubishi would want to keep producing the CRJ, scope clauses or no, given its unprofitability. The company could choose to fulfill current orders and wind it down, says Aboulafia.
Beyond the CRJ maintenance network, Mitsubishi could benefit from adding experienced engineers from the Bombardier program who could aid in developing the MRJ and in the complicated regulatory certification process.
Bombardier filed a lawsuit against Mitsubishi in October, alleging that former Bombardier employees had supplied it with trade secrets that would help the MRJ gain certification.
A sale of the CRJ line would be the sunset of an era of ambition for Bombardier, a snowmobile maker that expanded into rail in the 1970s and aviation in the 1980s with a series of acquisitions, but stumbled badly earlier this decade with an attempt to challenge Airbus and Boeing by developing a 100- to 130-seat jet, the CSeries, that almost bankrupted the company.
CEO Alain Bellemare, who came aboard in 2015, has sold off assets and raised new debt and equity to pare Bombardier’s heavy debt load, aiming to slim the company down to its strongholds in business jets and trains.
In 2018, Bombardier gave away a majority share in the CSeries to Airbus, which has rebranded it the A220. Airbus has the option to buy full control in 2025. This week Bombardier closed the sale of its Q Series regional turboprop line to Longview Capital, and last month it announced that it would sell an aerostructures factory in Morocco and its Northern Ireland unit, which developed innovative composite resin technology used to make the wings for the A220.
For the CRJ program, Bombardier could fetch a similar price to its sale of the Q Series, which netted $250 million, says analyst Christopher Murray of AltaCorp Capital, and a deal could allow it to offload other contingent liabilities.
Bombardier shares rose 8.9% Wednesday morning to 2.14 Canadian dollars on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The stock tumbled 20% in late April after the company cut its 2019 sales and profit outlook due to delays and quality issues on multiple contracts at its rail unit. Bombardier said during its first-quarter earnings call last month that it would no longer commit to previously announced financial goals for 2020, including raising sales to $20 billion.
-Jeremy Bogaisky;Forbes Staff
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