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!

September 23, 2010

Pros of Living in South Africa

I just came across this post on an expat forum and thought I'd share it, as another point of view why South Africa is a great place to live:

The diversity. 

Part of the country is desert. Part is Mediterranean in both appearance, lifestyle and climate. Part is tropical. Part is African Savannah. Part is rolling mountains. 

Even the cities. Parts could be in the South of France or California parts could be in Detroit, and then again parts could in Lagos. 

The people. The Europeans are a scattering of everything. From classic "boere" living with values from 150 years ago to cosmopolitan modern youths. Blacks, Whites, coloreds, Asians all with different culture within their culture. But all sharing one South African trait of friendliness. A sincere "How are you today ?" and a "How can I help you ?" are just not that forthcoming in much of the western world anymore. Children who still respect their elders and men who still have manners and ladies who aren't ashamed to know how to bake. 
Add to obvious in that. Beautiful game farms and beaches and a wonderful variety of outdoor actives to do and the weather to do them in. Never too hot or too cold and almost always sunny. Awesome cuisine and wine. 

To read entire post, click here.

September 21, 2010

Postal Service in South Africa

I think I’ve already mentioned that our houses here don’t have mailboxes. There simply is no mail service to your house. Please take a moment and reflect on the comforts of daily mail delivery, right to your doorstep. I know it is very fashionable in the U.S. to bash government and taxes, but I’m sure most Americans would be very offended if they had to retrieve their mail somewhere else like I now have to, whatever the tax rate. I will come back to this theme when I discuss the local public libraries!

Anyway, one of the first things you do when moving here is to apply for a PO Box, for an annual fee of R249. These boxes can be found pretty much anywhere. Most shopping centers feature a battery of them somewhere to the side, where you can drive up and get your mail.

I’m told we were somewhat lucky to get one close to our house so quickly, as there can be wait lists. I’m also told that the South African Post Office (SAPO) is not very reliable, but so far we have not had any problems (unless you consider a lack of speed a problem). Nothing has been lost (that I know of). And they do have very beautiful stamps! When I tried to find out more about the reliability of SAPO, I came across news stories about Amazon blacklisting it in 2008, as the only African country, due to heavy theft (which, according to those stories, a postal spokesman, when asked about it, blamed on those boxes having "Amazon written all over them" and therefore being very tempting). However, none of these reports were from what I'd consider reputable news sites, and at any rate I could not find any reference to blacklisting on Amazon's international shipping page, so if there was a problem I would say it must at least have improved. (Although, curiously, I was only able to access Amazon's Africa shipping page through a proxy server, something that has happened to me here for Pottery Barn and the Johnson County Public Library sites as well, making me feel like I'm a Chinese dissident sneaking an order for sofa cushions past the authorities...)

I digress. As I stood in line at the post office yesterday (closest to Dainfern Estate there is one right by the Broadacres/Cedar Rd gate, or in Valley Shopping Centre by the Dainfern College gate), I was struck by the realization that post offices all over the world are exactly the same. They are all very drab, there is usually some kind of counter in the middle with stacks of various forms, a pen dangling off a chain nearby, and you find yourself facing 5 windows but only precisely one is actually occupied by a not very fast moving attendant. So while waiting you are forced to study the walls and find yourself reading and re-reading the “complaints filing procedure” and “how to make the post office a crime-free zone.” A poster featuring the South African post office mission statement made me chuckle: “We strive to be one of the top 10 postal services in the world.” Really? Number 10? I would say even the third best is probably not very well loved amongst its people, so isn’t shooting for tenth a little bit of a low aim? Then again, if the competition involves delivering mail to people’s doorsteps, maybe number 10 is a definite step up!

On the bright side, I don’t have to go to the post office very often. And, come to think of it, not to our PO box either. We go about once a week and half the time find it empty. I’m almost ecstatic when I do find the bank statement or the pest control invoice, which I think are the only two items sent to us by mail. All financial transactions are accomplished (once you have your bank account!) via electronic funds transfer (EFT), and that alone cuts down your flow of letters drastically. By the way, I have to take a few minutes here and, in the spirit of fairness (since I’ve done my fair share of complaining about all the things that have been difficult here), praise the South African banking system. It is way ahead of the U.S. in many aspects. Trust me, you won’t find many countries where people still write checks, but Americans do it quite happily.

But back to my goal of educating other expats. So you’ve made sure you have your PO box, wonderful. Now, if you want to send more important or time-sensitive mail, you might want to take it to PostNet , an affordable private parcel and letter service. They have offices in most shopping centers, the Broadacres and Fourways Mall ones being the closest to Dainfern Estate. If you mail an international letter via PostNet, it will be shipped to London on the next plane, and then enter the regular U.K. Postal Service there. This keeps the rate for a regular letter down to R22 (about $3) and ensures delivery in about a week. (I hope they made sure the U.K. is ranked somewhere at the top of postal services).

Fedex and DHL of course are options as well, and they DO deliver right to your house, but they are expensive. Another option for your local mail is one of the myriad courier services operated by motor scooter. This is how our Movies4Africa  DVDs are delivered and picked up.

All in all, I would say your mail delivery does work fairly well in South Africa. But receiving and sending mail seems to be a much smaller part of life here, propelling us much farther on the path to a paperless world than we’ve ever been. It might be one of those areas where the developing world leapfrogs the first world when new technologies emerge.

September 20, 2010

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika

Ironically, now that I've become an American and can officially sing The Star Spangled Banner with hand over my heart, I've fallen in love with a different national anthem. Listen for yourself and tell me if you don't agree that this is one of the most beautiful songs in the world:

This song is even more beautiful if you consider its history. It is a hybrid song written in the five most spoken South African languages (there are eleven official ones), combining parts of the ANC's battle song (a former church hymn) with parts of the national anthem under the Apartheid regime and new English lyrics.

Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika

Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika - South Afrika.

Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

Lord bless Africa
Raise high its glory
Hear our prayers
Lord bless us, her children

Lord, we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation, our nation,
South Africa - South Africa

From the blue of our sky,
From the depth of our seas,
Over our everlasting mountains,
Where the crags resound,

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

For more information, visit Wikipedia or

September 14, 2010

It's an Emergency - Who the Heck do I Call?

*** Update June 1, 2015: There is now one SINGLE Poison Control number: 0861 555 777 ***

It just occurred to me (6 months after we moved here!) that none of us have any idea who to call in case of an emergency here in South Africa. I'm very grateful that until now we've had no need to, but I decided we need to be better prepared. This morning I set out to compile a simple list of essential numbers to post on our fridge. Something we all can use, especially the kids. But of course, as you may have gathered from my blog, nothing is ever easy and straight forward in South Africa, and it immediately became a project.

I first went though the list and refrigerator magnet we received from Corporate Relocations upon moving in, hoping to whittle it down. I mean, who wants the following information on their fridge: Emergency connect - 10177; Greater Johannesburg for all life threatening emergencies - 011 375 5911; in case of difficulties with an emergency call - 1022 (I'm sorry, but that's the part where I started laughing); Police/flying squad - 10111; From a cell phone - 112; Emergency connect - 082 911; Poison information centre - 021 689 5227 or 021 931 6129... It goes on and on. I am imagining the following: "Oops, a fire, let's see, where is my list... fire, fire...Would that fall under emergency? Or rather police/flying squad? What is a flying squad anyway? I could call the Johannesburg number... from my house phone or cell phone? Kids - pour some water on that fire, will you, while I go down that list!

Taking my search to the Internet only revealed some more history about this gaping problem. Apparently, there have been efforts to create one single nationwide emergency number (112, the same as is used throughout Europe) and there has been success insofar as this number can be used for all emergencies FROM YOUR CELL PHONE. But regarding landlines, the picture is more bleak. I found out that the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (DCOGTA - I am pausing briefly to consider the nature of this department) had formed a task force to consolidate South Africa's 1500 (!) emergency contact numbers prior to the World Cup, but evidently nothing came from it. In case of a specific emergency, South Africans without a mobile phone seem to be cursed with having to remember or look up a battery of telephone numbers for every emergency service provider in the country.

After a little more research (I decided to call some of these numbers to make sure they actually work!), I settled on the following list for our fridge:

South African Emergency Numbers

Netcare 911 (private ambulance)082 911
Poison Information Centre086 155 5777
Dainfern Valley Security011 469 0805
Douglasdale Police011 699 1300
Life Fourways Hospital011 875 1000Cedar Rd/Cedar Ave
Sunninghill Hospital011 806 1500Witkoppen/Nanyuki Rd

I decided to keep both ambulance numbers because frankly I don't know which one is better. I will have to ask around amongst our South African friends. I also kept both poison control numbers; they both connect to hospitals in Cape Town and are supposedly staffed around the clock, but it seems better to have two options in case somebody has nodded off. It is also a good idea to have a number for your estate's security office, as they can handle various emergencies as well and are certainly the closest at hand.

My next action item is to save 112 as the first entry into all of our cell phones and discuss all the above numbers with the kids.

September 10, 2010

Johannesburg Climate

I don't know about you, but whenever we're moving someplace, the first thing I'm checking out is the weather. Yes, education is important, so I researched a lot of schooling options, and yes, you don't want to die either, so in the case of South Africa I researched safety as well (though if you google "crime South Africa" you would never move here if you believed all those horror stories floating around the Internet). But honestly, what I really care about is the weather. And let me tell you, we have not been disappointed!

Johannesburg in spring: New weaver bird nests are being built
I could relegate you with tons of information, climate charts galore, but you don't really need them. Johannesburg has fabulous weather. If you were able to special order your dream weather from a menu, it would turn out very close to what Joburg has to offer. The combination of a subtropical latitude (like, say, Jacksonville, FL) with a high altitude (like Denver) in a semi-arid zone works out very well for most of us, except perhaps if you're a farmer.

When we arrived here in March, it was technically already fall, but it was beautiful summer weather with a few thunderstorms here and there. The rain completely stopped in May, and then it was winter in June and July and maybe a week or so in August. Winter, here in Joburg, means more beautiful days with temperatures around 20C (60s and 70s) but cold nights all the way down to freezing (it's nice to have a house with underfloor heating), and not a drop of rain or even a cloud in the sky. The kids had to wear jackets to school in the morning but by noon they'd shed everything which made for a lot of lost uniform items and trips to McCullagh & Bothwell. And then, somewhere in the middle of August, it became summer again. Everything is blooming and greening and it looks like spring (can you imagine, a winter and a spring completely without rain?). Temperatures are back up to 28C (low to mid 80s) and our pool is starting to get used again. It still hasn't rained, and is not likely to do so, I'm told, until maybe October. There is absolutely no humidity and the nights are generally cool, even throughout summer, so you don't need any air conditioning.

We haven't experienced real summer yet, but from what I'm told it resembles a tropical climate, with half-hour thunderstorms but otherwise sunny skies every day. So, in summary, Johannesburg really only offers you two seasons: A wet season from October through March, and a dry season from April through September with two months of cooler weather in June and July. Or, if you will, ten months of summer and two months of winter, all of which are sunny. The only downside I can detect is that the lack of humidity makes for pretty cold pool water, and not many houses come equipped with solar panels. Obtaining a quote for the installation of that is the very next item on my list. I'll tell you what I find out!

September 7, 2010

Back Home

Just a quick post to tell you that we're back in Johannesburg, where a day of bright sunshine is just as sure as a power outage while you're gone. Thank goodness Sibu, our domestic, checked everything while we were gone, or we'd now be dealing with a very smelly freezer oozing all sorts of drippings, and probably a green pool. Turns out our friends at Eskom had once again turned off the power mistakenly, so sorry for the inconvenience. Funny how they always manage to do that when we're gone.

The news here is that South Africa has pretty  much been on strike while we were travelling. Teachers and nurses and other public workers are demanding 8.6% more pay and not happy with the 7.5% the government has offered, even though inflation is below 3%. This has led, for instance, to TB patients being released from hospitals to go and spread their drug resistant strains among the general population. Sibu tells me of relatives who have died because they were turned away from the emergency room. Once again, this leaves me feeling very grateful that we can afford alternatives in health care and schooling, but I cannot help but feel terrible about such a miserable reality for so many people.

On a more local level, we have been advised that it might soon be raining shit, excuse my language. But it's true! There is this sewage pipe that spans the entire valley of our neighborhood, and apparently its protective aluminum siding is progressively being stripped by enterprising thieves (you wouldn't believe what kinds of things are stolen around here) and the newly exposed pipe is in danger of spilling. Just one more thing to keep an eye out for!

The last bit of news is that I received my first traffic ticket! All this time I'd been on the lookout for the police, after Noisette having to empty his wallet for them, but what had not been on my mind at all was speed cameras. I can now tell you that they definitely have them in Joburg, somewhere on Main Street going into Randburg. They sent me (or actually Noisette, as the car is registered in his name - that's another story) a notice, complete with picture and everything, and please to pay it ASAP or there will be an additional fine. Seeing as it was only R250, I obliged, but have made a vow to be more careful in the future.

Welcome home is all I can say!