December 27, 2010

Weaver Bird Nests (How Men Can Never Get it Right)

This is already least the third weaver bird nest dangling from the acacia tree in our yard:

Weaver bird nest in Johannesburg, South Africa

Or I should say, it was dangling from the tree until today, when it disappeared, like all its predecessors this year. This has always been a mystery to me - did they fall off during a storm, but then why wasn't there a nest on the ground?

Weaver birds (Ploceidae is their scientific name and they are related to finches), are  found pretty much everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. As the name suggests, they are excellent weavers, as can be seen in their intricately woven nests - some of them entire colonies stuck together. They are fast builders, too, with a nest like the one in this picture going up in a single day.




But I was always baffled as to why the nests in our tree kept vanishing into thin air. Only recently was I enlightened: The male weaver bird is the one building the nest, all on his own, and when he is done he proudly presents it to the female of his choice. Alas, she is often not very happy with his shoddy workmanship, in which case she rejects the nest (about 4-5 times on average, I was told). And she doesn't just discreetly reject it, no, she has to come and actually destroy the whole thing, for all the world to see, which is what I had the privilege to observe just now. One minute the nest was there, and as I sat there taking pleasure in looking at it, a weaver bird came flying at it for what I thought were further enhancements, but instead the entire thing burst into a cloud of hay and was gone, poof! Even the little handle by which it was attached to the branch.

So for the poor male weaver bird, there is nothing much left to do but starting all over again.

This picture of a weaver bird starting a new nest was taken in Madikwe Game Reserve

As Noisette would say: Typical woman! A guy just doesn't stand a chance...

One of the previous weaver bird nests in our yard
Weaver bird nests in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Weaver bird nests in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

More on Wildlife in Southern Africa here.

December 19, 2010

A Typical Day in Africa

Today was a very ordinary day, nothing special, and yet in a way it was typical of life here in Africa.

First, I had coffee with another expat friend. I find myself often having coffee with friends. There is less rushing, and people seem to have more time for coffee breaks. We traded expat stories, and as always it left me feeling much better about my lot, because she really is in a pickle.

Somehow the Department of Home Affairs has been sitting on her family’s permanent visas, and, as I’ve said earlier on this blog, NOTHING happens in South Africa without your permanent visa. You cannot open a bank account, you cannot get the infamous traffic register number which you need to buy and register a car, and you cannot get a cell phone. Just imagine for a second if they took away your money, your car, and your phone – that’s right, life comes to a standstill. Which may not be altogether bad, but a hassle nonetheless. Her husband has undertaken several trips to said department, standing in line for hours, only to be sent home again each time to produce yet another important document. Not a list of documents, mind you, just one, until such time as you return with the requested piece of paper, only to be chased away again because something else is missing. That’s why I suppose there are places here where you can just go and buy such documents for a “fee.”

I left the café very energized due to my caffeine intake and the knowledge that we DID have our visas, and set out to the pool supply store. What was typical Africa about this errand was the fact that although we have a pool service, our pool has been completely green three weekends in a row, only because the people who service it don’t show up when promised. I call, they swear they will come, and nothing happens. Yes, yes, I can hear your snide remarks about this particular complaint – she has a POOL, for crying out loud, and she manages to gripe about that? It’s true, and I do enjoy it, but no one wants to swim in a green pool, so I just decided that I’ve had enough of waiting around for other people and that I should be able to do this myself, with the help of a bucket of chlorine and Google for questions. I left, weighed down with many bags of sachets, bottles, and tablets, and briefly wondered if having to spend a fortune on chemicals will save me any money, but we shall see. At least now I feel like I’m doing something.

Then I had to go to the bank. Noisette had brought some Euros from his last Germany trip, and wanted them in the bank. I had been nervous all morning carrying this stack of bills with me (where to put it? In my purse? Leave it in the car? I had settled on my pants pocket, making for an uncomfortable and quite unlady-like bulge while sipping my coffee), so I was very happy to safely arrive at the bank. But as soon as a stepped out of the car, it hit me with force: I didn’t bring my passport! By now I should know these things – nothing happens at any kind of official place in South Africa, especially when money is involved, without a passport (including Visa!), and perhaps even 30 pages of your lease agreement. But the bank is not exactly around the corner, so there was no going back. Instead of the teller, I went straight to the lady who’d been anointed our “private banker,” due to which honor we’re not quite sure. She accompanied me to the teller, and sure enough, a passport was what was required, but given her vouching for us, our passport copies deposited with the bank would suffice. Although there were some probing questions about where so much money came from and how it arrived in the country, and at some point I began to see my chances of success dwindle, let alone maybe being arrested for illegal money trafficking. But in the end it was agreed for the passport copies to be produced, and my banker dutifully climbed all the way back upstairs to her posh office and retrieved said copies. No such thing as looking anything up on the system. This took about 30 minutes (and I was beating myself up because I had committed another cardinal sin – left the house without my Kindle!) during which time the foreign exchange teller was typing away furiously at her keyboard and stamped at least three different forms with authority.

After just one more errand I was glad to be on my way home. Sputtering along William Nicol, having to stop at every single one of the twenty-seven red lights, or robots, rather. Despite the fancy name, South African traffic lights are at the bottom of the totem pole as far as traffic lights go. No synchronization whatsoever, no priority for main thoroughfares, God forbid no adjustment for peak traffic hours, and no waterproofing. Yes, that’s right, they leak. When it rains, many of them go out (along with the telephone lines, it seems), but this gives rise to a miracle: Everybody comes to a perfect stop and politely waits his turn, in a very orderly fashion. A black taxi might have barreled along the shoulder and squeezed by ten cars seconds earlier, but now it is standing there like everyone else. There is absolutely no cheating at the broken robot.

As I was low on gas – petrol – I decided to stop at the gas station – garage – on the way home, and buy biltong at the adjacent butchery while filling up. I don’t know if I’ve told you yet, but getting gas, normally a hated activity for me, is a pleasure in South Africa. You never have to leave your car, everything is done for you, much like it was in Europe or the U.S. about a hundred years ago. Your tank is filled, your windscreen wiped, your oil and tire pressure checked, all for a small tip (I usually give R5). You pay by handing the attendant your garage card – a specific card only to be used at gas stations, which you must apply for when you open your bank account – and he comes back with a slip to sign. Except this time it didn’t quite work out that way. Upon pulling up at the pump, I was regretfully informed that there was no more Diesel. It had in fact been out for the last three days. Nothing for me to do but limp home on an empty tank and try again another day.

That was it. Like I said, nothing fancy, but typical for Africa, where such things take three times as long as they should, and where you never quite complete what you set out to do. 

December 16, 2010

Christmas in Joburg and Where to Find a Tree

I’m a bit slow getting geared up for Christmas this year. It’s hard to think about the festive season when you are woken up by birdsong every morning, another day of 80 degrees of sunshine stretching ahead of you. There is just not much of a Christmas atmosphere in Johannesburg, which people have fled in droves to spend their summer breaks somewhere else, partying on a nice beach, most likely. We ourselves have just come back from a fabulous week in Mauritius, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. So for once I’m not feeling very stressed about my Christmas to-do list, even though daunting questions beckon, like how can you get all those presents without Amazon, will your Christmas lights work with 220 volts, and where on Earth do you find a Christmas tree in Johannesburg?

Maybe I’ve embraced The African Way more than I realize. I’ve cursed the exhausting and frustrating “Welcome to Africa” side of it, which those of you reading this blog will have heard plenty about. But there is also a very relaxing and beautiful side to the African mentality. It is the idea of living the day, of taking time to smile, of stopping what you’re doing to have a chat or to play a game, of helping others even if that delays your plans, the spirit of Ubuntu or togetherness. It teaches you that most things we’re so worried about aren’t really that important, that in fact we ourselves aren’t that important. I’ve just finished a book called “A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough” by Wayne Muller, and while not at all about Africa, it essentially has the same message. I can highly recommend it.

So, I’ve decided life will probably go on even if I strike about half of the items off my Christmas list. As for the tree, my first plan was to just wait for it to magically appear at the Fourways intersection, where so many useful (and more often useless!) things are hawked by enterprising street vendors. But then a friend gave me a cell phone number and a name, and lo and behold, we came home with a real tree today! Well, let me qualify that a little bit. Coming from Durban, which apparently is the place for suitable Christmas trees, it is a Japanese Cedar.

If you’ve ever seen one, it is a bit on the spindly side with a thin trunk and floppy branches (which had the bonus of making it fit very easily into our car). I’m trying to picture all our ornaments on it, and it does not seem feasible to accomplish that without the whole thing keeling over. It’s trying hard enough to stand on its own without any additional weight. Still, it is a real tree, which not many people in Joburg have, so I’m happy we’ve got one.

Here is the place we got it from, if you’re interested:

Japanese Cedar Trees, while stocks last:

-          1.5 m: R280
-          1.8 m: R320
-          2.1 m: R360

16 Cambridge Avenue, Craighall Park, call Kathy at 083 600 9622

December 3, 2010

Our First South African School Year is Coming to a Close

Today is the last day of school, and I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I can’t believe that these kids are going to be home now and it is only the beginning of December, with a million things for me left to do before Christmas, preferably away from curious eyes. On the other hand, it is time for us to bid grades 8, 6, 4, and 2 our final farewells. It doesn’t just seem like we’ve hung around them forever, we actually have! Leaving the U.S. in March of this year, we had almost completed the school year, only to start here almost from the beginning of the same grades. I’m now more glad than ever that I took the kids out early back home and traveled the country for a month.

Not that they didn’t get enough breaks here. Every time it felt like we had gotten into a routine, there was another break coming up, and Zax will tell you that I harp endlessly about the fact that there were three weeks (THREE!) practically off for high school exams. Twice this year. One and a half hours of exams each morning, then the rest of the day off. Which you were supposed to use for studying, but for kids who only study about 20 minutes per exam, that’s a whole lot of time off. But this year was also unusual due to the World Cup and the extra break that had to be squeezed in for it. Although the World Cup was great fun and we’re very grateful to have had the privilege to be here during this time, I am now looking forward to a new full school year with the regular three terms, starting after summer break on January 12, 2011.

All in all, we have been very happy with the experience at Dainfern College so far. There is a strong focus on academic achievement, a good sports program, and a whole lot of school spirit and music sprinkled into every day. It is definitely more formal than in the U.S., and I don’t just mean school uniforms. The recent academic awards assembly is a good example. All teachers were dressed in robes and their colors, and the students who received awards for academic excellence were called to the stage one by one to receive their certificates and be congratulated. This doesn’t take place in a gym but a large auditorium that resembles a posh theater. Quite often there are guest speakers telling inspirational stories. But it’s not always this serious. The Junior Prep (grade 0-3) teachers turned out an adapted production of Cinderella that was absolutely hilarious, the Grade 3 Nativity Story was wonderfully performed, and the choir is always excellent and entertaining.

If you’re an expat contemplating a move to the Johannesburg area, you should strongly consider Dainfern College for your kids. It will be very convenient, for one, because most expats stay in the Dainfern area, and you shouldn’t underestimate the convenience factor as a calming influence on your life. But it is also a very good school. Yes, I’m biased since that’s where we send our kids, but I truly think it will be an enrichment to your family. The academic level will likely strike you as lower from your home country, and that will put you off at first, but there is a whole lot more to school than just academics, and Dainfern College has all that extra. We’ve seen tremendous growth in our children as people over the last year and it can mostly be attributed to the new school and the friends they’ve made there.

I Might Have Spoken Too Soon: Fraud in the South African Postal Service

Just a humble suggestion to the South African Postal Service: Aspiring to be number 10 in the world does not sound all that ambitious, but you will never be even close to that if you cannot control rampant theft in your system!

So my little experiment of sending mail to the U.S. went well, the package was delivered, and quickly at that. However, no such success the other way.

If you remember, I told you our neighbor had warned us about having foreign bank correspondence sent to our PO box, and I did indeed make a half-hearted mental note to perhaps change that, but what with other pressing to-dos and the Christmas season approaching it didn’t get much attention. As luck would have it, I had recently been issued a new bank card by our German bank. The pin arrived, but not the card, and I had made another mental note to check why the card hadn’t gotten here yet. I’m glad our bank was more vigilant than I was – today I received a call to check if a recent request for a substantial money transfer from our account to a South African bank was legitimate. Of course it wasn’t, and so it was stopped, as was the card, which undoubtedly was stolen somewhere along the way before it reached our PO box. The scary part is that not only was our bank account number diverted, but somehow this thief also discovered and copied Noisette’s signature, we have no idea how (did he find out his office address and bribe someone to produce the signature? Or did he find out our home address and went through our garbage? Another mental note: must make a habit of using the shredder again, our old one of course not working due to the whole voltage issue). The accompanying letter was written in very bad German (I’m thinking Google Translator, very similar in style to the Nigerian get-rich-quick emails you’ve undoubtedly received before), which by itself would have sent a red flag to any bank employee. Nevertheless, all of a sudden the warning of our account being depleted within months doesn’t sound outlandish at all!

Therefore, to all aspiring or existing South African expats: Do NOT handle any financial transactions through your local postal address. Have your mail go to a friend’s or colleague’s address in your home country, and let them tell you if anything of import arrives, which they can then forward you via courier. You might also alert your bank to never accept any money orders without receiving your explicit o.k., which any respectable bank should already be doing when dealing with South Africa.

As for our fraud case, I was told to not even bother with the police, who will most likely laugh at you. I did forward the fraudulent letter to the bank that was used by the would-be thief, but I’m not holding my breath, as they have probably covered their tracks well.

Stealing, unfortunately, is not just limited to the postal service but to all areas of South African society. When you go shopping, you will soon learn to keep your receipt out when exiting any kind of store, even if you’ve only bought a package of mints, as there will be a security guard cross-checking the contents of your bag against the receipt. And when you take your car in to be serviced, you will be warned to take out all valuables, and you better do, because otherwise they will indeed be gone. I keep a few coins for the parking attendants in my glove compartment, nothing much at all, and still found that they were gone after my last car service. I’ve heard reports of entire CD collections to go missing. Noisette is dealing with theft on a staggering scale in his factories, from valuable raw materials to rolls of toilet paper. I’ve also heard reports of stolen purses, so it is wise to keep a close eye on yours when shopping or in a restaurant.

So we’ve at last discovered the uglier side of life in South Africa. But, as everybody will tell you here, be vigilant and sensible, and it won’t be half as bad. If you’ve ever lived in Europe, you’d never even dream of leaving your purse in your car, or leaving your keys in the ignition, even if you’ve parked in the garage, yet in the U.S. we’ve grown so accustomed to do these very things, because there is practically no theft (in most places). So it’s basically a matter of adjusting to your circumstances and taking the necessary precautions.

November 26, 2010

Registering your Domestic for UIF Payments

I totally love this topic. This is the one thing you will absolutely cherish in South Africa. Okay, not the UIF contributions, which, considering a government agency is involved, cannot be much fun. But, as promised previously, I will walk you through the process, and it will be well worth it because having domestic help is simply wonderful!

Almost all well-to-do or actually what we would consider middle class South Africans employ domestic workers – housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, etc – and as an expat, so will you.

In fact, you will be expected to, because this will give a valuable job to someone who most likely will support a family of eight with it. As soon as you will have moved into your house, people will come knocking at your door for jobs. This will be the one and only item on your moving-in list where things will progress swiftly, I can promise you. That is why it is best to put some thought to this topic ahead of time. Will you want someone coming in several times a week? Or will you want her to live with you? In that case, she will occupy the domestic quarter, something most houses here are equipped with (if typically not very spacious).

Salaries for domestic workers are typically R2000 to R3500 per month (though I am no authority on this) for working Mon-Fri from 8-5. For a live-in maid you typically also provide the food, which I can tell you right now will mainly consist of mealie pap (porridge made from corn), plus furnishings for her room, and perhaps the occasional doctor’s visit, since there is no insurance to speak of. There is, however, the UIF, South Africa’s unemployment fund. As an employer of a domestic, you have to pay 1% of his/her salary into it on a monthly basis. The employee has to make a contribution (also 1%) as well, but in most cases this is paid by the employer, making it a total of 2%. When you first employ a domestic, you must register him/her with the Department of Labour, which can easily be done by visiting www.ufiling.co.za. You will find two forms there, the UI-8D and the UI-19. Complete both of these and fax them to the number provided, and within a week or so you will receive a uFiling number, which you can then use to set up your online account. After that, you will be notified every month when a new payment is due, and you can pay it directly via the uFiling website, or via bank transfer.

There are services that handle all domestic payroll affairs for a fee, but in my mind setting up a uFiling account and making your monthly payments is very easy.

Related posts:

Hiring Domestic Help
Hiring the Right Domestic Help
The Life of a Domestic Worker

November 19, 2010

Have You Brought Anything for us Today?

So I'm innocently driving along William Nicol the other day, my car full of 4th graders going on a field trip, when I run into a major road block. I'm third in line of our little convoy going to visit a dairy farm, and of course the two cars in front of me are waved through, but sadly I'm not. I'm a little nervous, since of late I've left my American drivers' license at home. I'm still not entirely sure what kind of drivers' license I actually need, as it seems impossible to obtain a South African one. But I also don't want to lose my Kansas license, which is why I'm only keeping a copy on me, the original safely at home. However, I do keep my international drivers' license on me, and I've also dug up an ancient German one (German licenses don't expire - or at least they didn't back sometime in the Middle Ages when I got this one).

All this is going through my head when the cop walks up to my window.

I hand him the German license, which he eyes suspiciously, wanting to know if it's an international one. I'm sure I could have said yes, but just to humor him I also hand him the international one. Mind you, the two don't match whatsoever, since I obtained the international license in the U.S., but he doesn't seem to notice. So far so good. Then he asks whether I have my traffic register number. I remember it well: This is the thing all foreigners have to apply for, but you can only get one if you have a permanent visa, which is why I actually couldn't apply for it, which is why this car ended up in Noisette's name. But of course I don't carry this number on me, and he doesn't press further. I'm making a mental note to put a copy of it in the car. But I'm not off the hook. Do you know why I've stopped you, he wants to know. I'm still being polite, which is why I don't state the obvious, that this is a freaking roadblock where they stop whoever they please! No, I say humbly, I have no idea. Well, I've stopped you, he informs me, because your car has a radar jammer, which is illegal. I silently curse the car salesman from Benoni (whom you might remember from my car purchase odyssey) who was so very proud of said radar jammer, while I shoot up my eyebrows in surprise. You don't say, what is this thing, I want to know. He makes me step out of the car and walk around, and there, lo and behold, are two fat boxy things glued to my bumper, front and back. My outrage to discover this is very real, as this actually IS news to me. I'm well aware of the jammer IN the car, which I've made use of quite frequently, but I had no idea there were such telltale signs on the OUTSIDE of my car.

The cop goes on and on about my grave offense, and how he could arrest me, and how that would really make for a bad day for me, wouldn't it? I can now see where this is leading. Noisette's cop (whom you'll remember he shared the entire contents of his wallet with) used the same line. I agree that yes, it would not be nice to be arrested, especially in front of all these kids, but of course he makes no move in that direction. He doesn't even have a ticket book or anything. I continue to be outraged that such a contraption could have been snuck onto me without my knowledge, and offer to take it off then and there. I even tell him that I've already gotten a traffic ticket for speeding (sadly this is actually true), which must be proof that I'm not using my jammer at all. I'm also making another mental note that I should keep a copy of that ticket in my car for future reference.

Now he starts asking me where I work, and whether I have my own company. When I say no to either, he wants to know where my husband works. I'm really quite slow on the uptake, and this cop is clearly despairing, but honestly I'm worried about my field trip and all those kids in my car, and I just want to get going. I don't get all these covert hints. Surprisingly, he lets me get back into the car, and then, through the open window, asks me: "Have you brought anything for us today? Coffee, or anything else?" At this point, I see it all clearly. His hopes of stopping a big and expensive car and cashing in very nicely are now reduced to maybe getting a small tip, and the indignity of actually having to ask for it. But I have no intention of bribing a police officer in front of 50 of his colleagues, so I smile, apologize for the lack of foresight about the coffee, and drive off.

I don't quite get it. Either my offense was actually not a reason for arrest, or if it is, taking me in to a police station would have been such an inconvenience (and forced him to give up his lucrative business of stopping cars) that he chose not to pursue it when I called his bluff. I have to say I was quite pleased to be let off the hook (a feat that has eluded me on all the occasions I was ever stopped by a cop in the U.S.), but it makes me mad that there is such overt corruption in this country. The fact that this guy was very comfortable asking for money in front of half the JMPD force (I'm telling you, it was a HUGE road block) goes to show that this is the norm, not the exception. All of my South African friends are equally outraged and refuse to pay bribes, but it must happen often enough to keep the system going. So, all you expats out there: Do NOT pay bribes. Chances are very good you'll be let go without having to pay anything, and you'll be doing this country a service.

November 15, 2010

SAPO - Passing the Test!

Just a quick update to tell you the cricket balls have arrived! I have to say, I am more than pleased with the results. I mailed the package from Johannesburg on November 5, 2010, and it arrived in Overland Park, KS, on November 13, maybe even the 12th. So it arrived, and in just one week! Plus I was able to track the (rather brief) South African portion of its journey online, just as promised, on the South African Postal Service (SAPO) web site:


TRACKING
LINE
TYPE
DATE
TIME
BRANCH
COMMENTS
1
In transit
2010/11/06
10:51:06
JHB INT MAIL CENTRE (HUB)

2
In transit
2010/11/05
22:11:50
WITSPOS (HUB)

3
Item accepted by branch
2010/11/05
10:21:00
DAINFERN NORTH


Arrival in Overland Park: Nov 12 or 13. Oh, and on that website I also saw that I could renew our annual PO Box subscription online.

To be fair, I should now probably conduct the experiment in reverse to see if that works equally well. As I've said elsewhere, I've heard rumors that Amazon had blacklisted South Africa at some point in time because so many packages were 'lost." And our neighbor looked at us in shock the other day when the discussion turned to bank statements and we revealed that we received ours in the mail. How could we be so foolish? Our bank account would be depleted within weeks, he was convinced.

November 12, 2010

The Life of a Domestic Worker

Having recently read “The Help” (a great book, if you haven’t read it) and now enjoying the privilege of full-time domestic help here in South Africa, I feel compelled to share a few observations on this topic.

My maid – again, the correct South African term is “domestic worker” or simply “domestic” – is absolutely wonderful. She has been a blessing, which is why I’ll call her Sibusiso, Sibu for short. Without her, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post, because I actually wouldn’t be writing it. Instead, I’d be busy cleaning showers, washing the laundry, ironing school uniforms, picking up after the kids – you know the spiel. And my house would still look messy, whereas now it is spotless. But of course this is all only possible because her services are affordable from our perspective, and if you’re in any way human you cannot help but try to look at it from her perspective.

Your best resolve to not become personally involved will melt away over time, and you will find yourself with a small humanitarian project of your own. How could you not? How could you not finance (a loan for the time being) the extension of her house, when you hear that soon eight people will be living in its three tiny rooms? How can you not pay for a doctor’s visit when she complains of abdominal pain and tells you she’s never had a pap smear, especially if you just spent that same amount on a new but not entirely necessary tennis racket for your daughter? How can you not rush out and drive your leftover antibiotic ointment to her diabetic mother whose infected finger has become so painful she can’t sleep at night? How can you not contribute a few hundred Rand to pay for the funeral of yet another family member, at which possibly a whole cow will need to be slaughtered?

I also find myself competing of sorts with her previous employers, although I’ve never met them, who it sounds from the stories I hear were very generous. This might be unreasonable, but it gives you the urge of wanting to “keep up with the Jones’s.” I realize there is an element of hypochondria – I’m relegated to stories of aches and pains and sleeplessness regularly – and there also has to be a limit, as I only have so much patience for other people’s stories, and that includes my own kids. Still, it’s a worthwhile cause, and it gives me more opportunities for first hand field research about life in South Africa, which is what this blog is all about.

So we recently set out to compare prices of building materials to commence with the house expansion project. Sibu already had a quote from someplace else but wanted to check out this outfit, at my urging, actually. At first we just had one sales clerk looking up and quoting prices for bricks, cement, and corrugated iron sheeting. Sibu would tell him what she wanted, adding “the cheap kind” after every item. The clerk wasn’t sure about the window frames, which brought the help of a second guy. Had we thought about timber beams for the roof?, he wanted to know, and proceeded to draw a diagram of the planned structure with Sibu occasionally throwing in a measurement. The ensuing picture was a revelation to me. I had assumed she would simply add on to her house by tearing through one of the walls, but it turns out bureaucracy stands in the way of the obvious. She lives in what is called government housing, i.e. a free plot of land with a house, walls and roof only, three rooms at about 3x3 meters each. Tiny, in case you’re wondering. Government housing is reserved for people of very low incomes, and they can only apply if they can show proof of previously living in a shack (to thwart people who have a perfectly fine house elsewhere, I assume), which in my mind will never stop the cropping up of those so-called informal settlements the government is so hard at work to eliminate. After the end of Apartheid, the new government inherited a backlog of over 2.2 million housing units, and they’ve worked hard at making a dent, but with still so many settlements lacking water and electricity after 15 years, the population is growing increasingly impatient. At any rate, owners of government houses have to abide by the rule that you cannot alter them without the housing agency’s approval. Which might take you years to get, and cost you as much again as the entire expansion in the first place. Needless to say, inventive people have found a way around this by building their new rooms as free-standing structures, thereby not altering the original house. I’ve since then noticed these “rooms” everywhere!

We’re still in the home builder’s store, and by now we’ve attracted a crowd of four or five guys, customers and store clerks alike, who are all busy giving their advice on Sibu’s project. Everyone is chattering away in Zulu and I nod knowingly, as if I could understand a single word. Imagine this scene for a moment. There is no better picture of the African mindset than this. One person’s need becomes everyone’s problem, although we’ve never before seen these people, and they are quite willing to give freely of their time, without any benefit to themselves. I cannot help but think that if I was in line at the help desk at Home Depot, waiting for this woman to get through her list, I would be rather annoyed with the delay and tapping my foot impatiently, glancing at my watch ostentatiously to attract someone’s attention to help ME with MY very important errand. Nothing would be further from my mind than finding out what she needed and offering my help! But here in Africa I’ve seen this happen again and again. Is it because, in an underdeveloped world, you have to rely more on the help of others? Where obstacles have to be tackled jointly, like a tree fallen onto the road, before people can proceed? Or is it a world where time has a different rank in people’s lives, or where – I hate to even say it out loud – they might simply have nothing better to do? Maybe it is a bit of all of that, but I think there is more. From what I’ve seen, Africans have a larger sense of community, and also a need for it. What we are taught as little kids about being nosy is completely natural to them; in fact it would be rude not to take a genuine interest in other people’s affairs. Family is very important, but then everybody is family, brothers, uncles, aunties everywhere. Funerals are big affairs, celebrations even, with huge crowds streaming into the townships on weekends to pay their last respects. Accompanied, as mentioned before, by the slaughtering of cows and possibly other rituals I dare not enquire about.

We finally tear ourselves free from the crowd of well-meaning would-be homebuilders, Sibu having realized that this store was way more expensive than her original quote. But we aren't done yet. This was just the brick and window frame place, but apparently sand and possibly roofing is best gotten somewhere else entirely, so she guides me there next. I should mention that whenever I’m on the road with Sibu, I am treated to all her local knowledge of shortcuts, which in the end invariably seem longer to me, let alone painful to drive due to pothole-lined streets you’d suspect in Mogadishu, not Johannesburg, and a million left and right turns. This new hardware store definitely has a low-end feel, kind of like the Sam’s Club of building supplies, and I honestly cannot wait to get out of there. Let me just say that I do not like hardware stores, and I also hate mass discount stores of any kind, so putting the two together in one is almost too much for me. But not for Sibu. She strolls down each and every aisle, eyes shining, appraising and comparing water heaters and corrugated iron, as if we’re in an art gallery. She insists I look at the tiles as well, since in her opinion I should see what I am paying for and that it will all be a good investment, and then the beams of timber, which come in a gazillion different lengths and thicknesses, all of which we duly record prices for.

Our next stop is her house, so I can see that as well, but also to deliver her new trash can – you may remember that in an unexpected stroke of luck I’ve become the proud owner of a second one? This is where her excitement starts to make sense to me. As I’ve already said, the house is tiny, but you can’t imagine it until you’ve seen it. Having it crammed full of everything Sibu has ever been given or scooped up at a bargain doesn’t help to make it look any roomier. In fact, I count five TVs, some small, some huge, and some frankly quite new, which is more than we own. She is extremely proud to show me her home, and I have to say it is very neat and taken care of. But oh so small. It is very easy to forget, in the cocooned lives we lead, that people like us, with our Western lifestyles, use up a ton more physical space – and energy – than the huge majority – 95%? – of the world’s population!

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of Sibu’s  new “rooms.” So far, I’ve already been asked for an extension on the loan, which prompted me to teach her some basic computer skills including the virtues of an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting purposes.

November 7, 2010

Joburg Lightning and Rainbows

Johannesburg features some of the most spectacular thunderstorms in the world. We're entering the time of year where they are an almost daily occurrence, from about 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon, or at least so I'm told. I was also warned that you better unplug your TVs and computers  and other expensive electrical equipment whenever there is lightning anywhere close. So far, I've seen just a few of these storms and they've made for some nice pictures, both of lightning and rainbows (I didn't manage to stop the car quickly enough when both would have been in the same picture).



November 5, 2010

Eskom - How Much More Absurd can it Get?

I bet you’ve been missing my Eskom stories? If not, you might want to skip this post. But I promise you it will make you feel good, for the simple reason that you DON’T have to deal with them! Unless you live in South Africa, and then you can commiserate with me.

I left it off where I was going to take my anger about months of unjustified interest charges and power disconnections to the Rivonia office, having obtained an actual address. I found it, parked, and stood in line. Always carrying my Kindle in my purse for just such occasions, I didn’t mind. What I did mind, though, was when the lady who finally saw me had no clue what I was talking about, threw up her arms, and told me to come back another day to speak to the customer service rep I’d dealt with over the phone (who, you’ll remember, was only competent in dishing out new reference numbers).

I wasn’t so easily appeased, however, and hung out at the reception on my way out until another lady came by who looked a little more knowledgeable (when you've lived in South Africa for a bit you'll become very proficient in judging who can and will help you just by looking at someone). I accosted her, and was successful in that she took me upstairs (upstairs! An improvement for sure from the minions downstairs!) to her office. She was fuming at the incompetence of the first lady who she said knew perfectly well what I wanted but was too lazy to deal with it. What she then tried to explain to me made sense in a way, but I’m not sure I completely understood it. Apparently, the previous tenant at our address had quit paying (as I had already correctly identified as the root cause of all our woes), and so Eskom took out their security deposit to apply to the outstanding charges. When our landlord then paid the account to make it current, Eskom didn’t reapply it to the security deposit account and proceeded to charge us interest for the missing deposit. That still doesn’t explain why it was a different charge every month, but I was so happy that someone even understood my problem that I was ready to jump over the desk and hug this lady. She did some magic on her computer to re-allocate that deposit and declared my problem fixed going forward. What she couldn’t fix, however, was giving me a credit for what we’d already paid, and reversing the reconnection fee of R495. But she promised that she had forwarded the request to the correct department and would personally call me with an update.

Needless to say, that call never came, but I was still reasonably happy to have made some progress. All I had to do was wait for my next invoice and see everything fixed. Or so I thought. I wasn’t even holding my breath for a credit, I just wanted no new interest being charged.

But before we even got there, a whole new set of events unfolded. While I was in Cape Town (a most beautiful place which will warrant its own blog post in due time), our power was once more cut off, as Sibu informed me over the phone, lights working but no outlets, as had happened before. What else to do but call Eskom again? It wouldn’t even have occurred to me that something else was at fault. They actually did come, fixed the problem, and informed me thereof. When Sibu still didn’t have power, she summoned them again, but they refused to come, saying there was power at the box and to get an electrician. Nothing left for me but doing exactly that the very next morning. And this is where I seem to attract plain bad luck: I couldn’t reach the owner’s electrician, so I called another one from the yellow pages (plus it came recommended by Corporate Relocations!) and when they finally got there, they blamed some sort of earth leakage and an “unbalanced circuit board” and billed me R5,900 for half an hour’s work. Now, in perfect hindsight, it seems clear to me that I should have sent them packing and never have paid such an outrageous amount, but when you’ve just come back from a trip and your freezer is oozing a greenish substance, similar in color to what once was a beautiful pool, and having spent a day on the phone with Eskom (who for once was perfectly professional and even sent me a confirmation text message, I have to admit), then your judgment might be slightly clouded. I am now battling to get a portion of that money back, but as it turns out, another annoying thing about South Africa is that you cannot stop a credit card payment BEFORE it goes through, just AFTER. Then you fill out a lengthy form and hope for the best, which means that you will never hear back again.

Where was I? Oh, still waiting for a new Eskom invoice. Which did arrive last week, and I actually had to sit down when I saw it: There was a new “interest on overdue account” charge on it, but that wasn’t the worst – the bill was for R42,500! That is over $6,000! Just as I had resolved not to worry about those old charges, as long as going forward everything would be fine. But $6,000 for a single month of electricity? You can’t just keep paying. I was already mentally preparing for an entire life without electricity, and thinking back fondly to Mosetlha Bush Camp and the donkey boiler as I called Eskom yet again. But for once the Gods seemed to be with me, and after only 10 minutes of waiting I was informed that the bill was a mistake, that the new one was only R4,000, and that it would be emailed to me shortly. Whew!

It will come at no surprise to you that no email ever arrived. Concerned about the due date of said invoice, I called again today. And was informed that it was indeed R3,956, but it would not go out this month, since corrected invoices only go out in the following month. Great, I said, so the due date is next month? No, I was told, it is on the 13th of this month. Okay, I said, but then I would like to have the actually invoice black on white. So sorry, they said, not possible. I suppose I’ll just have to add that to the Eskom stupidity account. And guess what I was given as a consolation for the missing invoice? You guessed it: A new reference number!

The moral of the story is this:

a) If you think it’s bad, it can always be worse.

b) Never EVER use AAA Electrical for your electrical needs around Johannesburg. They are corrupt to the hilt and shamelessly take advantage of expats by charging you exorbitant amounts, maybe even making up a problem that doesn’t exist (who am I to know if there was actually a leakage or just a tripped breaker somewhere down the line from the panel where I couldn’t see it).  I’ve already gotten Corporate Relocations to drop them from their referral list, which makes me feel slightly better.

c) When you first move to South Africa, IMMEDIATELY go to Eskom, take the usual identification documents (passport with visa plus lease agreement or other proof of residence), and open an account in your own name. Do NOT leave the account in the landlord’s name, as you might inherit all sorts of problems.

d) Figure out what the meter reading date is at your house (ours is the 12th of the month), go out to your power box that day, read the meter, and call Eskom with the reading. They will then bill you with that number. They are quite happy not to have to come out, and you will know what to expect.

I hope this was my last post about Eskom, with the possible exception of reporting about a happy ending and everybody living happily ever after.


The only thing to go an do after a frustrating session with Eskom on the phone.
Let's just say I drank a LOT of coffee from 2010 to 2013!

Testing the South African Postal Service

I posted a package to the U.S. today (Sheila, if you're out there, I'm using Michael's cricket balls for this experiment!). Just to see how it works, I used the actual postal service, not PostNet as previously recommended by me. It cost me R122 which included making it a registered letter ("Geregistreerde Brief" - sorry, I have to sometimes include these words in Afrikaans as they always make me laugh). Supposedly, I can go to http://www.sapo.co.za/ and follow its progress there, up to the point where it leaves the country.

Let's see how the postal service "aspiring to be number 10 in the world" will do. I'll keep you posted (no pun intended).

November 3, 2010

Jacarandas in Bloom

One of the most spectacular sights in Johannesburg is when the Jacaranda trees are in bloom during late spring (October-November):




These trees, together with bougainvillea in bright pinks and purples, make Joburg look absolutely beautiful at that time of year. You feel like wandering through a fairytale when you walk through these humongous tunnels of purple, and after the first rains towards the end of jacaranda season it is even more magical when you wade through a sea of purple blossoms covering every inch of pavement.




Another great, if not better, place to view jacaranda trees in bloom is the capital city Pretoria, not far from Johannesburg, which even has been nicknamed "Jacaranda City."

What's interesting about these jacarandas is that they are not indigenous to South Africa. They were imported from Argentina or Brazil in the 1880s but through their sheer numbers have become a South African icon. However, the South African government has passed new laws targeting invading plants to secure the survival of indigenous species, and the as an exotic tree the Jacaranda falls into that category. Fortunately they are not among the group of plants that have to be removed, but no new ones are allowed to be planted, and if any existing ones die, they cannot be replaced. Let's hope the over 40,000 Jacaranda trees in Pretoria alone will survive for many generations to come!

Read about my Jacaranda Photowalk with the Joburg Photowalkers, where you can view many more beautiful jacaranda pictures: Purple Explosion.

View spectacular images of the African sky: Africa.

October 26, 2010

Madikwe Part 2

Here is the second part of my Madikwe photo safari pictures:
(By the way, if the slide show is turned sideways on your screen, it is likely an Internet Explorer problem; it is perfectly fine in Chrome or Firefox).

October 22, 2010

From Furniture Store to Street Market and the Art of Haggling

When our container shipment arrived in March, it brought instant bliss to the kids, who loved having all their long-missing possessions dumped in huge piles in their rooms, and instant stress to me, looking at a mountain of stuff that needed to be assigned to new locations in a house that is completely different from the previous one. Such is the life of a family on the move. Yet it always amazes me how quickly you become settled. Six months later, all this frustration is forgotten. The stuff is all organized (lots of it banned to the remotest cupboard corners, making you wonder why you own it in the first place), the pictures are hung (although that’s almost another blog topic in itself – hammering a nail into this brick here is nothing like hammering a nail into American dry wall; we ended up having to drill the holes, generating clouds of dust, then placing the nails in the holes; a lengthy project as it involves power tools and is therefore the domain of Noisette, who has no time for it during the week and no stomach for it during weekends). Our life is now back to normal – deciding on a dinner  menu, organizing play dates, watching sporting events, going to the movies.

But the one corner of the house that has continued to bug me, day in day out,  is our entrance way. South African houses – forgive me if I generalize – are completely devoid of linen or coat closets. Our bedrooms have closets, but after years of training your kids to take off their shoes upon entering the house, you cannot get them to carry them up to their rooms. It simply won’t work. Therefore, I had to live with a huge pile of shoes, right next to our front door, for the last six months.  Almost immediately I set out to find a solution, some sort of coat rack/cubby combination I so love in the Pottery Barn catalogs, but alas, there is neither a Pottery Barn nor an IKEA in South Africa. I scoured many furniture stores in the northern suburbs of Joburg, from prohibitively expensive to affordable, without much luck. I did see some beautiful furniture, don’t get me wrong, just nothing in terms of shoe organization that would also look attractive in our foyer. From Wetherlys  (not my taste) to Furniture Warehouse (basic), Sutherlands (nice selection, both indoor and patio), @home  (terrific modern design but expensive), Coricraft, Weilandts (beautiful and eclectic wooden furniture), Patio Warehouse (biggest outdoor selection we could find), Boardmans (in my mind the most practical and affordable selection), Mr. Price Home (best value but also limited selection, reminds me of Target), even Gumtree (the South African equivalent of Craigslist), I had no luck. I found affordable curtains at Mr. Price Home, nice barstools (the kind that moves up and down, thrilling the kids to no end) at Boardmans, very nice fake wicker outdoor furniture at Patio Warehouse, but still no shoe solution.

Bryanston Street Market
The breakthrough, as is so often the case, came when I had stopped looking, in the unlikeliest of places. I was driving down William Nicol, looking for the African craft street market on the way to Sandton (at the corner of William Nicol and Main, where you take a slight left towards Sandton and a slight right towards Randburg). It is run by Zimbabweans who have tons of African crafts for sale – stone sculptures, beaded figures, wood carvings, you name it. That day I was looking for one of those birds made from welded metal (they also have giraffes and crocodiles and warthogs, if you want to go bigger) as a present for friends in the U.S. I pulled into the dusty parking lot, and what should I see there, tucked away and not visible from the road? A huge selection of dressers, light or dark wood, wicker baskets for drawers. I had actually seen similar ones before and thought they might work for shoes, but they never had the right dimensions. These didn’t either, but I was assured by a swarm of sellers immediately surrounding me that any size could be custom made without problem, in any color. So I pulled out the measurements I’d been carrying around with me for months, and right there, on a dusty street corner, sketched and negotiated away. There was plenty of nodding and measuring and overall excitement, a typical African group project. My plans were definitely the center of attention. I picked the number and size of drawers, which was dutifully scribbled on a piece of scrap paper that almost fluttered away in the wind, gave them R400 in cash for a deposit, exchanged phone numbers, and hoped for the best. In my mind I could already hear Noisette over dinner that night, incredulous: “You what? Just handed them money? You’ll never see them again!”

But first, I still had to find my bird, so I wandered off towards the next stalls. My dealmaking had not gone unnoticed, for I was immediately surrounded by new throngs of vendors who sensed that here was someone willing to spend money, practically tugging at my sleeves to veer me off toward their wares. I was the owner of 5 beaded keychains and 3 carved animals before I was able to escape to go measure some birds (I know, a very mundane way to buy art, but I had to make sure it would fit in the suitcase). These ones were nice but slightly too big. Another bird vendor spotted me and pulled me his way, proudly declaring his birds were smaller, and he had almost wheeled me in, when the first guy, sensing that he was losing out, simply took one of his birds and bent down the neck. “Here you go, ma’m, the perfect size for you.” And that still wasn’t the end of my shopping spree. With eagle eyes, two other stall owners had watched my every move and now came running after me to extract the last bit of change they knew I was still clutching. My last R50 bill went for a stone statue that I had bargained down to R40, but the vendor could only come up with R8 in coins as change. And then R8 was precisely the price of the carved wooden lion the other vendor shoved at me. Only when I had absolutely no money left was I able to walk to my car in peace. As a Westerner – we generally suck at bargaining – I hadn’t done too badly. The lesson: When you really don’t care for something, when you truly mean to walk away, is when you get the best price. I probably overpaid for the chest, although I still think R1200 or about $160 was a decent deal. The other lesson: When you go to one of those places to shop, don’t bring a purse. Not because it’s not safe, but because that implies deep pockets, hence higher prices. Bring only what you want to spend, best in small bills (no one ever has any change), and I promise you that you will walk out of there with what you came for, as they will never let you walk away without making a deal.

As for my drawer chest, the most amazing thing happened: In a country where I can never, I mean NEVER, get anybody to call me back, I received a text message just four days later, on precisely the advertised date, to please come and pick up my furniture. And it was exactly as I had ordered it. These people were professional, honest, and reliable. And yet street vendors are undoubtedly one of the first dangers you will be warned about when visiting South Africa, which just goes to show that you can't believe everything you hear.


October 16, 2010

Madikwe

I’ve been wanting to write about safaris and game viewing for quite some time. There are so many choices and places to go, it’s hard to even break through the surface. Your inclination, as a freshly-arrived expat, is to wait and get your new life sorted out before you feel like going travelling again. But don’t. After all, seeing the animals is what you’re meant to do in Africa, so you might as well get started right away. Before I tell you where to go, have a look at these pictures and I’m sure you’ll want to read more (click on it to view full screen in Picasa):





After conducting quite a bit of research (or, as Noisette might say, researching the thing to death) I’m happy to tell you exactly where you should go on safari if you live in or visit Johannesburg: Madikwe Game Reserve, which is located three and a half hours to the Northwest of Joburg, right on the border to Botswana. It’s an easy drive (“only” 30 km of dirt road) and you won’t find anything better in Southern Africa. You got the Big Five there, and much more, and it’s entirely malaria-free year-round, as opposed to the Kruger Park. It’s also much less crowded. You can choose from a total of 32 lodges in Madikwe, most of them 4 or 5 star luxury lodges, and unfortunately quite pricey, but that is the same everywhere. I recently stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp, where the above photographs were taken, and had a wonderful time. It is also by far the cheapest lodge in all of Madikwe.

What I loved about Mosetlha is that it’s a true bush camp, not a luxury lodge. That doesn’t mean that you have to make do without amenities – it’s just a bit more complicated and you’ll definitely feel closer to nature. You will learn to use a donkey boiler, a most amazing contraption where cold water goes in one end and hot water comes out the other, you will enjoy hauling that hot water up into the shower bucket, and you will marvel at the fact that such little water can give you a pleasant bath. In fact, I found myself silently wishing that we had such a thing at our house, as it surely would conserve a lot of water and might put my “shower wars” with Zax to an end! (Although I shouldn’t have attempted to also shave my legs, by the light of a paraffin lamp). You will also marvel at the “VIP Toilet,” which through some ingenious design has absolutely no smell at all, even though it can’t be flushed. In fact, there is no electricity in the entire camp.

Mosetlha is located right in the middle of Madikwe’s 75,000 hectares that are home to some of the most abundant game you’ll find in Southern Africa: The Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), zebra, giraffe, monkey, hippo, hyena, jackal, and a huge variety of antelope. Madikwe is also home to the endangered African wild dog, which you won’t find in many other places. Included in the price – as at any lodge – are two daily game drives. The food at camp is cooked on an open fire, where you’ll sit and share bush stories before retiring to your cabin on a path lined with paraffin lamps. The beds are very comfortable and you wouldn’t know the difference from a deluxe hotel room, except for the breeze – and flies – wafting through the canvas sides and the occasional roar of a lion.

For more information on Mosetlha, visit http://www.thebushcamp.com/.
The best place to research and book safaris: http://www.bushbreaks.co.za/
Another affordable game lodge we really liked (it’s located in the Waterberg and is not Big Five): http://www.yellowwoodgamelodge.co.za/

October 8, 2010

Crime and Security

In the interest of fairness and even-handed reporting, I will now step into the highly emotional minefield of discussing South African crime, a topic I’m usually trying to avoid. If you’ve been to any other expat forums, you will know that 90% of the South Africa coverage typically consist of a debate about crime, as if there is nothing else the country has to offer. How about climate, people, nature, freedom? Having lived in Singapore, one of the safest places on Earth, I know that you cannot make safety your number one concern. There are many things our family loved about Singapore, but it is still not the place we would choose to live the rest of our lives. The one thing I find truly alarming about South Africa’s future is not crime, but the Zuma administration’s recent efforts to suppress the freedom of press, just because they’re annoyed by persistent reports of the government’s ineptitude.

But, like I said, I also want to tell you all that I know. (You’ve certainly found out more about Eskom than you’ve ever wanted to!) Another school mom told me yesterday she was mugged somewhere along William Nicol, which I consider a safe area, when picking her car up from a car wash. We only talked in passing and I didn’t get the full details, like what kind of weapon, if any, was involved, but I had the impression it was not so recent, maybe within the last two years. In any case, you hear many such stories, but this is the first I’ve heard first-hand from someone I know, so I wanted to relay it to you. It does make you pause, because it is more real than just hearing it on the news. I have to admit I do not read any local papers (other than the Dainfern Estate newsletter). Headlines such as “Man fathered 4 million babies” have a way of turning me off, even in a country where many politicians’ escapades make the more fantastical headlines seem tame. A first hand account is different, but even so I have a hard time feeling alarmed. My thoughts always turn to practical matters, like “maybe I should remove my unused U.S. credit cards from my wallet, those are always a pain to replace” and “probably should keep my drivers’ license in a different place, especially since it seems impossible to get a South African one.” Oh, and should I use a different purse? I’m very fond of my Coach handbag and matching wallet and would hate to lose it. But it’s the only one big enough to hold all the stuff I’ve become used to toting around Joburg, such as our lease agreement, in case anybody asks about it. And also, should I have pepper spray? But would I really use that to counter a gun in my face, rather than just handing over the wanted goods?

I probably haven’t helped you much, but I did find clarity in one thing: Get Noisette’s company to finally give us that security training we’ve been promised for five months, so at least we know what to do in certain situations. Like not stopping for red lights in the middle of the night in suspicious areas. We were coming home from Sun City (to see Jeff Dunham live) late at night in September, and were both cursing because the route our Navi sent us on had one gazillion traffic lights. Since we didn't know the area and that was enough to officially declare it suspicious, we skipped every single one of them and let me tell you, it was the most fun we've had in a long time!

October 5, 2010

Eskom: Absolute Power to Turn Off Your Power Whenever They so Choose

I'm actually shaking with rage as I'm writing this. My South African friends will no doubt laugh and shrug their shoulders and tell me "Welcome to Africa." Noisette tells me that at least it makes for another good story, and he's quite right. I'm grateful to you, who are reading my blog, for letting me vent for the next ten minutes, otherwise I think I might explode.

Eskom came and turned our power off today. In broad daylight. I wouldn't even have known but for Sibu's (our domestic help) quick thinking, who spotted a security guard in our driveway and went to find out what was going on.


What was going on was that there were two people from Eskom, escorted by the security guard from the main gate (who it turns out is obligated to let Eskom into the estate without notifying the tenant) who had just turned off the power at our main box in the driveway. They were actually already on their way when Sibu (who has lived through all my Eskom ordeals with me and whose outrage probably even surpasses my own) rooted them to the spot, no doubt with some salty Zulu flying out of her mouth, and ran to get me. If you've been following my blog at all, you will be able to imagine how I came flying down the stairs, six months worth of account statements and reference numbers clutched in my fist, and practically launched myself at those poor guys with all the accumulated rage over Eskom's incompetence bursting out of me. I think I might have been foaming at the mouth. 

I pride myself in my reasonableness. I tell my kids that it doesn't matter who is right or wrong but just to get on with it and solve the problem. I remind Noisette that nothing ever gets accomplished with rage, especially when directed at the wrong people. And I just told you in the last post that I should just pay the darn bill and find something better to do with my time. But when you're foaming at the mouth you are no longer all that reasonable. Here they were, turning off our power, without warning, over R700 of withheld payment that WASN'T DUE UNTIL SIX DAYS FROM NOW, when we had just paid our last bill of over R10,000, and when the reason for the withheld payment had been logged in their system for FIVE MONTHS, but no one ever called us back? What probably pissed me off the most was glimpsing their list: Neat columns of house numbers, dozens of them, some of them crossed off, where they were doing exactly the same thing. Talk about alienating your best customers. If they have crews of people to spare, they should send them into the townships and install some much-needed electricity for people who've been promised better services since the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison!

I have to say that my fury scored a partial victory. I think they knew I wasn't backing down, though what I could have really done I don't know, flung myself in front of their truck? In any case, they agreed to turn the power back on, "just this once," but admonished me that I must call THE NUMBER. Ha! What a novel idea. Wouldn't have occurred to me. But that is precisely what I did, since the hasty retreat of the utility crew left me with quite a surplus of steam needing to be vented. You will think "that poor account rep," but don't worry. If there is one thing Eskom is good at, it is training their reps in anger management skills. Their customers' anger, that is. She never once flinched when I flung our entire account history at her and she coolly informed me that my request had been forwarded to the "relevant people" in the accounts department who would get back with me in due time. This prompted me to ask, with a hint of sarcasm, for a definition of "in due time," and if it was maybe asking too much if it was less than another four months? I think she, too, perhaps sensed that I wasn't going to be appeased with another reference number, so when I asked to speak with a supervisor, she promptly put me on hold. For about half an hour. And, miracle of miracles, my complaint was finally escalated to the next customer service level, thankfully without a new reference number. The one thing she wouldn't do is remove the disconnection order from our account, but I was successful in another way: I am now the proud owner of an actual name, at an actual office address (corner Rivonia and Kort), with an actual phone number (8000 121 - though that looks like a very suspicious format), with actual visiting hours (8-4) when people can come in and bring forth their case. 

That is what I'll be doing tomorrow. Keep posted.


September 30, 2010

Eskom: Adding Insult to Injury

I think I’ve written enough positive things about South Africa lately to be forgiven if I go on a bit of a rant again! This one is about Eskom, the utility company supplying South Africa with electricity (or striving to). It’s actually high time I complain about Eskom, as Telkom (phone and internet) and the City of Johannesburg (trash pickup) have already gotten ample coverage on this blog.

Ever since we moved here, our monthly Eskom invoice has included an ‘interest on overdue account” charge, even though we’d always paid the account right away.

It wasn’t very much, but even R100 here and there add up. Since we were new and had other things on our mind, we dutifully paid this interest every month, but by May I decided it was enough and called up Eskom. I was prepared to go on a rant and right this wrong, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when the account rep I talked to immediately conceded the point and supplied me with a reference number. A credit to my account would be forthcoming, I was informed. I filed away those invoices and checked the item off my list. But I should have known better. South African Lesson One: Nothing is ever done just because someone says so.

The promised text message to confirm the credit never arrived, and the June bill yet again showed a new interest charge. Even worse, our electricity stopped working for two days. Anyone living in South Africa will know that the first thing you do when you have no power is to check with your neighbors to see if they have power. If they don’t, you relax, shrug your “Welcome to Africa” shrug and move on, confident that eventually the power will be turned on again. But if your neighbors do have power, it’s a different story. So we called up Eskom, only to be informed that there were technical difficulties, which somebody was working on, not to worry. Except the power did not come back on even after a day. Lesson Two: Never take what the first person tells you as the truth; call back right away and keep complaining. When we called again, we were informed that the power accidentally had been turned off, their mistake, and please write down this reference number.

The power did eventually come back on, but the interest charge remained. In fact, in July the interest charge was the only charge on our bill. Our electricity consumption was listed at zero. Weird, so I called again. The account rep dutifully took down all my details, but once again, the promised text message with my account credit never arrived. As for the zero consumption, I was told that Eskom couldn’t be bothered to come for a meter reading every month, or to even do an estimated reading, and to please go to the meter box myself, perform a reading, and then make a deposit based on that. Huh? Screw that, I thought.

In the meantime, we went away in August, and disaster struck, in the form of another power turnoff while we were gone. The contents of our fridge and pool water were only saved by the loyalty and dedication of our domestic, who had come in to do some work, even though we had given her the entire time off. When she called us, my initial thought was that perhaps I should have done that meter reading after all, because maybe in the meantime Eskom had done their own reading and realized we’d used a ton of electricity (after all it was winter and the under-floor heating running nonstop).  Curiously, the lights were working, but all other power was off, so of course we assumed there was a technical problem, and called an electrician. But it turns out Eskom can cut different phases of your electricity, which is what happened in this instance, once again erroneously, as they themselves admitted. So a few days and a few hundred Rand for the service call later, our power was back (if not most of the food in our freezer). Lesson Three: Call Eskom first, it is ALWAYS their fault. And Lesson Four: When you travel, make sure someone checks on your house periodically.

Back home, I studied the newly arrived Eskom bill for August, and discovered that, low and behold, they had actually issued a credit. But I couldn’t celebrate quite yet, as the credit was nowhere near the actual number of the accumulated interest charges. It wasn’t even any combination of any of the charges, no matter how I calculated it. I would have SO loved for SOMETHING to match! I decided to just calculate what they still owed us, and only paid the difference. Then I called about 15 more times, both to complain about the interest and about the fact that no one ever texted me a confirmation or called me back, until I finally figured out that their system didn’t keep my cell phone number, even though they kept telling me they had updated their records to add it. It took another hour on the phone with a surprisingly competent rep to just fix that problem and get my first ever text message confirmation from Eskom.

I am now holding the September invoice in my hand. You won’t be surprised to hear that there is a new interest charge on it, plus – and our South African friends had all, to the last person, predicted this – a reconnection fee of R500. You do wonder if this is just pure sloppiness, or a scheme to make some more money: Turn off people’s power over the weekend and then slap them with a reconnection fee when they complain. At any rate, such insolence made me laugh, so at least that is some kind of progress. Having gotten tired of calling, I’ve actually been able to prod an email address out of someone and have now logged a written complaint. I almost fell off my chair this morning when I had a reply in my mailbox. But of course, all it contained was, as you will no doubt have guessed, a new reference number. And instructions on how to log a complaint online, to be supplied with an automated reference number. Final lesson: You might as well not waste your time with Eskom; just keep paying what they charge so that your power won’t be turned off FOR A REASON and keep track of what you overpaid, then deduct that amount from your final invoice when you move. Come to think of it, this is probably precisely what our predecessors did, which is why we ended up with an interest charge on THEIR overdue account in the first place!