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 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:

In transit

In transit

Item accepted by branch

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 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.