Joburg Expat: Welcome to Africa!

July 10, 2010

Welcome to Africa!

Although this happened sometime back, I thought I should record some "Welcome to Africa" moments:

April 28, 2010:

We’ve been here for almost two months, and once again we seem to be in the moving backward phase of “one step forward, two steps back.” In my mind, it was just a matter of checking things off my list, even if it went slowly, until we’d be settled and everything would be perfect, and I could focus on my “real” life again and actually do productive things – writing this blog, for instance, which one could argue is not all that productive either – but it is now becoming clear that this was wishful thinking. The trash episode should have been a harbinger of things to come.

Our latest troubles involve pretty much all our communication services. First our phone stopped working, and then 3 days later, of course over a holiday weekend, our Internet stopped as well. I’m very grateful I finally got my cell phone working, in the nick of time, or I’d be really cut off from the world once again. Our cable TV, which we’d just gotten up and running, was temporarily out too but thankfully revived by a neighbor who happened to come by and just started pressing buttons randomly, claiming she had no clue what she was doing, but she’ll now forever be stuck as the person I’m calling with cable problems. Anyway, when the phone service went out, we first thought it might have been cut off because we hadn’t paid our bill, which in all honesty we couldn’t because we’d never gotten one, neither online nor per mail. The latter not being terribly surprising, as we don’t seem to get much mail, period, which could be due to the fact that no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly our address should be. It looks different every time. We have no idea what town we’re even in, whether it should be Dainfern Valley, or Randburg, or even Johannesburg, and then sometimes we’re given some kind of Extension number, and the postal code varies too. Once again, your mail here generally goes to a nearby mailbox, not to your house, but nevertheless we sometimes have mail appearing on our driveway, tossed there by whom we have no clue. But the mailbox is most often glaringly empty. This mail situation has led to feelings of perverse HAPPINESS whenever a bill DOES appear in it.

When we trekked to the nearest Telkom store after a weekend of being cut off, we were assured that our line was not suspended, and that a complaint would be logged, which would result in a technician being sent to our house. We paid the bill anyway, just to be sure. But four more days passed, and no technician showed up, even though after repeated calls we were assured that our request had been “escalated.” Instead, our Internet followed suit and stopped working as well. As you can imagine, I find this highly annoying, but the response by most South Africans whom I’m telling this is simply a shoulder shrug and “Welcome to Africa.” In fact, I’m told, I should be grateful that it’s just the phone and not the electricity, cuts to which could be imminent with winter looming and people turning on their heat in droves, which then overloads the system. Which brings us full circle, in that this is precisely the reason we’re here in the first place: Noisette’s company is part of that big Eskom expansion project building a bunch of new power plants. It was on the news a couple of weeks ago, when the U.S. refused to vote for (it ended up abstaining) a World Bank loan to South Africa financing more coal-powered plants instead of green technology.

Meanwhile, the phone saga continues. One thing we’ve found out about living here is to never trust the story you’re being told the first time, as it constantly changes the longer you probe. A point in case: No technician ever showed up, but after 6 days without phone service we received a call that it was now working again, which indeed it was. It very much sounds like someone, somewhere, flipped a switch to restore our service and that the purported technical line problems never existed, but what can you do? Call 10210 to receive a credit for the missed days of service, but I’m not really sure I want to spend any more time on hold with Telkom. As to our Internet connection, which supposedly had technical problems too, I am now told that it is simply not working because we reached our monthly data cap of 5 gigabytes. A limit? There is a limit? Yikes! But did I want to use our other account, the 3 gigabyte one, which still had hardly been used this month?, I am asked while contemplating the cap situation. What? Why would we have a second account? One that we never signed up for? But of course we have no idea what we are or aren’t signed up for, because we are not receiving bills! And our original account was initiated by our relocation company, which has since then been very much unavailable or unwilling to help, referring us instead to that Telkom number that lands you in infinite hold loops. But okay, since there seems to be another account with usage time left, let’s use it for the last couple of days until the new month. How do I use it, I ask? Another ID and password? Fine, what are they? And this is where my usually patient self starts losing its cool: They will not give it to me, since I’m not the account holder, Noisette is. Who, of course, leaves the house at the crack of dawn and comes back past 10 pm, and has absolutely no time or patience to be placing futile calls to Telkom, much less to accompany me and our two passports to the nearest Telkom store to sign over account privileges to me.

I’m not sure at this point what my course of action should be. It seems easiest to perhaps give up on the Internet. At least until the month is over. I’m going to go and read a book now.

July 9, 2010:

More recently, we've had a run-in with Eskom, the South African utility company. I was travelling with the kids - we are still on our World Cup break - and Noisette, who had stayed home, sent me an urgent text message wanting to know whether I'd paid our Eskom bill, as the house, upon his return from work, had no power. Mind you, this has happened before, but a quick survey of the neighborhood will usually tell you that no one has power, which greatly mollifies you. Shared misery is so much easier to cope with.

But this time it was just our house. A call to Eskom that evening yielded the assurance that our account was current and that it must be another technical problem. Another day of no power followed, until Noisette's second complaint with Eskom led to the revelation that our power had indeed been "disconnected due to nonpayment." It then turned out that this was done in error, so sorry. After two days, the power was back, but I am now greatly worried that this might happen when we're gone on home leave, with no one to find out and able to call. I don't even want to think about the color of our pool upon our return, or the smell from our fridge.

We are now waiting to be slapped with a reconnection fee of R700, which colleagues and friends tell us will be the next logical step.

By the way, we've had cuts to our water as well, the responsibility of which lies with the City of Joburg, much like trash removal. But this turns out not to be such a terrible inconvenience, as you can always grab a bucket and get some pool water to, you know, add to the toilet tank and such. And the one time I allowed myself to be annoyed by the lack of water, I was powerfully reminded the next day that you shouldn't complain, because things could have been worse. A neighbor's kid had left a tap open when no water was flowing, and when the water did commence flowing again at 2:00 in the morning, no one of course was there to turn off the tap. Oops!