Joburg Expat: 2012

December 30, 2012

No Regrets

Not only is the year 2012 coming to an end today. 

Today also marks the end of our family's life in South Africa. As you're reading this, we are somewhere en route between Joburg and Tennessee, making a last splash in an undisclosed Middle Eastern location - okay, Dubai, if you must know - before reality sets in again.

Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, August 2012

So forgive me if I feel the need to make some sweeping observations not only about this past year but our entire African adventure.

I have no regrets.

When we came to Johannesburg in early 2010, we had the benefit of having a prior expat assignment under our belts. That made a huge difference - not so much in terms of navigating a new country but in terms of our attitude towards it and life in general.

What I mean is we knew to leave out nothing from the start. I was greatly helped in this by my farsighted husband Noisette, I admit, because I am by nature a couch potato. If there is a computer on my lap, that is.

I remember that as an expat novice in Singapore some fifteen years ago I focused all my energies on forging a routine and willing my surroundings to function as I wished. Because that's what new mothers do. Routine is king and you enslave yourself to it. But the truth is that afterwards you don’t remember the routine. You remember the time you sped over Bangkok's Chao Phraya river in a water taxi, even though you threw up afterwards from breathing all the diesel fumes. Or you might have thrown up because you were pregnant. You remember the giant waves lapping into your undersized motorboat taking you to some godforsaken island off the Malaysia coast. You remember the time you stood on the highest mountain in New Zealand clutching your two-year old on skis, afraid that he'd be blown right out to sea by that howling wind. You remember feeling transported back in time when touring Pulau Ubin off the shores of Singapore, pedaling your bike with a napping toddler behind you through sleepy Kampongs.

Those are the things your remember, and you regret not having done more of them. Because what else will you have one day to look back on than a bunch of memories?

So here in South Africa we dove right in from Day One. 

We went on our first safari with the house still a mess of boxes fresh from the container. 
We rode in a hot air balloon, in a helicopter, on elephants, on dune buggies, and on camels
Put endless hours in noisy and bouncy safari vehicles under our belts for the privilege to watch lions, giraffes, buffalos, elephants, impala, waterbuck, rhinos, hippos, zebras, wildebeests, and even a leopard. 
Toured Soweto
Went into the notorious no-go zone of Alexandra, many times. 
Drove women and their firewood through Diepsloot.
Visited Cape Town.
And Durban
Had the most glorious food and wine in Franschhoek
Watched our eldest fling himself from the Bloukrans bridge on a bungy cord and from an airplane with a parachute. 
Saw African penguins in the wild. 
Swam in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Okavango
Paddled down the Zambezi. 
Went into a cage in the freezing Atlantic to come face to face with Great White Sharks
Dangled from ziplines over the Tsitsikamma forest. 
Watched whales off the coast of Knysna
Changed four tires in one day on a deserted road in Namibia
Paddled down the Orange River
Fell into the Orange River. 
Camped under the open sky. 
Watched countless breathtaking African sunrises and sunsets and everything in between. 
Stood on one of the highest sand dunes in the world.
Stood on the tropic of Capricorn.
Stood on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, the most glorious moment of all.

Sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro, September 2012

No, this time I have no regrets.

December 27, 2012

Free Parking

Did I know about all the free parking in Johannesburg, my friend recently asked me over coffee.

No, I did not, I admitted. As I told you in a recent post, I haven't exactly been a Smart Shopper in terms of going after the free stuff, scant as it is here in South Africa.

My excuse in terms of parking is that I live in the Northern Suburbs, where you're rarely charged for parking.  Big malls are surrounded by bigger parking lots, and all you're typically asked to pay for the privilege of using them is about R2 to the parking guards waving you in and out.

Where this friend lives, on the other hand, parking comes at a premium, and she's scouted out the ways to save money. As expected, none of them is intuitive or straightforward or even advertised anywhere, so I thought I'd divulge them here for the expat shopper.

Norwood:
  • First hour is free
  • Get an extra hour by going into the PicknPay (on left hand side of the store as you come out) or to the concierge next to the barber shop and handing in your ticket to be scanned. Great way to get lots of shopping done in two hours of free parking!

Hyde Park:
  • Stay free for one hour by handing in your ticket and Woolworth receipt at the concierge downstairs next to Woolworth
  • They will scan your ticket and return it with one free hour on it, as long as you've stayed under that hour (which will then hopefully work – I did try this and my ticket ended up not working, which was just as well because the guy let me out anyway)
  • Supposedly you can also get a free hour from PicknPay, but we haven't encountered anybody alive who's figured out how

Melrose Arch:
  • Shop at Woolworth to get 30 free minutes
  • Got to the parking kiosk with your receipt to get a free ticket that lets you out

Briefly spotted at Melrose Arch Woolworths but since then taken
down, so  only shoppers "in the know" can claim their discount

Montecasino:
  • Parking at Monte is always a flat fee of R10 upon entry, which is reasonable if you stay for dinner. 
  • If you just want to drop someone off, take the first entrance and circle around the fountain (they will open the boom for you if you tell them you’re just dropping off or picking up). 
  • If you want to drop someone off but need to walk them in, you can try parking at the Palazzo hotel, but you have to be a bit thick-skinned because the parking attendant there might catch you out and give you a scolding. 
  • You can also park for free on the other side at the SunSquare Hotel (by coming from Witkoppen or circling all the way around if coming from William Nicol). I don’t know if they still serve Starbucks coffee there at the lobby bar but if they do, it’s an excellent reason to stop by and spend the money you saved on parking for a nice espresso.

O.R. Tambo International Airport:
  • While we're speaking about parking, there is a little short-term carpark at the bottom level across from Arrivals. If you time it just right (or circle around and wait for a phone call from the person being picked up) you can park there free fro 20 minutes and save the R30 or so you'll otherwise pay.


What about you? Do you have any Joburg parking secrets to divulge?

By the way, I have often found myself at the exit boom of a parking garage without my ticket being paid for, because I either couldn't find the pay station or it wasn't working. Not a problem here in Africa – someone will materialize and happily take your ticket and some money from you, go to the machine, and redeem the ticket. This is one of the situations, had you told me about it before moving here, where I would have laughed in your face and said, are you crazy to just hand another person money and let them disappear with it. But I have never been cheated on these occasions. The parking guy invariably comes back with your ticket paid for and a big smile on his face, and you can be on your way. And it’s always a reasonable sum. Sure, perhaps they might add a Rand or two without your knowledge (although I actually doubt it), but that’s the least you should tip anyway for the comfort of staying in your car.

Yet another reason why I love Africa.

December 23, 2012

The Parking Gods

You can't live in South Africa without daily encounters with the Gods.

They are everywhere.
They might tell you where to go.
They are often invisible.
You have no choice but to trust them.
They can be a big comfort.
They hold your fate (or at least that of your car) in their hands.
You don't want to displease them.
You should always give them their due.

I'm speaking, of course, of The Parking Gods. Or more commonly called Parking Guards here in South Africa.

The term Parking Gods is courtesy of Dave, one of my readers, who confided to me some time back that it took him an entire day when first moving here and tagging along with his relocation agent to figure out that the parking gods were not gods at all, but guards that protected your car when you went into the store.

Make that one more expat falling victim to the South African accent. It took me ages to figure out that when friends sent me to the spa, they weren't taking about facials and massages but simply meant for me to go grocery shopping at Spar.

A lonely parking guard in the Broadacres carpark. Though I don't think those particular ones
are very good. They only show up when you've already unloaded half your stuff and are not
good at waving you out. I prefer the ones at Fourways Crossing.

The parking guards were brought into South Africa's carparks, so I was told, when crime was still rampant in those early days at the end of apartheid, and having your car burgled while shopping was basically a given. After installing those guards - probably half of them from the ranks of those previously burgling your car - those break-ins decreased dramatically, and the guards became an institution. Though I'm not entirely sure if they're officially hired by the shopping centers or store owners or if they just show up and then somehow defend their turf against other would-be guards, much like it is among the street vendors.

I've grown quite fond of The Parking Gods over time. At the beginning, they totally annoyed me. Every time I wanted to reverse and craned my neck, arm arched over the seatback, they were standing right in my way, an unwanted obstruction to the next twenty-one errands on my settling-in checklist. If they'd only go away, I would think, I could reverse so much more freely.

The problem, of course, was that I was trained to look behind me. Which, trust me, is one of the harder things to do when all of a sudden you find yourself and your steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. Like, which way do you turn? What I've learned since then is that you don't turn around at all. You just find your Parking God, who'll invariably pop up beside your car when you're done shopping, in your rearview mirror, and follow all his hand signals.

It's a matter of trust.

I  had such a hard time those first few months backing up into the great unknown with some guy I don't even know waving me on, but now I never have any second thoughts. I happily reverse wherever he waves me and then wait for him to come collect his coin.

About that coin: R2 is customary. I tip R5 if they also load my groceries. On some days this can add up when you're running from store to store and only park in one place for five minutes at a time. After all, the tip is supposed to be for guarding your car, not just waving you in, and it's safe to say that not much guarding was going on in those five minutes. And sometimes you can get a bit protective of those silver coins in your cupholder, because you actually have to make an effort to collect them.

But when a friend told me about her conversation the other day with one of the parking guys at Norwood, I vowed to make a push right here on Joburg Expat to lobby for nice big parking guard tips.

He told her the following: He takes a taxi to work in the morning for R8, then pays R50 to "work" and be assigned a row of cars to watch (so there is indeed more of a system to it than I thought - probably a mafia-like system, if you ask me). They are rotated every day because some spots are busier than others. Then he has to take a taxi home for another R8. He has to get at least R66 in tips to just break even before taking any money home.

You don't really think about that when seeing them every day, everywhere. Of course they live nowhere near our posh suburbs and shopping malls, but rather come in from the next township to perform their jobs. And minibus taxis are not cheap. Neither are they safe.

So please remember, next time you are tempted to forgo the tip for someone you didn't ask to help you in the first place, that you could be the difference pushing them over their break-even point and allowing them to go home with more than empty hands.

I shall miss The Parking Gods.

December 20, 2012

Staying Safe on South African Roads

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Have you ever changed a car tyre? 
Will you find your spare wheel, and do you know how to get it into the open? 
And the tools, the jack and everything – any idea where they are in your car, no doubt cleverly hidden by some nerdy automobile engineer?

In my car, you have to dig the tools out from the plastic side panels in the boot, manage to assemble various parts into a crank, remove a little rubber cover from a cup holder at the front, put your crank in the hole that is hidden underneath, wind until there is nothing to wind anymore, and then use your crank to pull the extra wheel from underneath your car.

Why do I know all of this, in such detail, you ask? 

Because getting the spare wheel is my job in the business of changing a tyre. While my better half is busy unscrewing the screws on the wheel, setting up the jack, and lifting the car.

The thing is, we have considerable experience with changing tyres, my hubby and I.

In Limpopo we had to try and get our tyre fixed before we entered a game reserve, not wanting to run the risk of being stranded in the wild if yet another tyre popped. In KwaZulu-Natal we had to hurry like crazy as we had to be in town before nightfall, before the hippos start roaming the streets. In Mpumalanga our car alarm went off in the middle of the night when the tyre went flat, waking us up. In the Northwest Province our friends, who were driving behind us, were frantically hooting and waving when our tyre went up in smoke. We never went to Cape Town by car. I don’t dare to think of what might have happened.

You see, in our first few years of living in South Africa, we managed to get a puncture fairly regularly whenever we travelled. The problem, apparently, lies in a car with a heavy back and a very soft suspension (so I am told, I don’t know much about cars), combined with potholes in the road.

These potholes, they are like mushrooms: As soon as the rains start in this country, they appear. And join the ones from last year and the years before. And like mushrooms, they are really juicy. You could comfortably give a bath to a Mini in some of them.

In Joburg I manage to do surprisingly well, slaloming around the potholes. But when we travel, it’s a different story. These potholes, they like to lurk in the shade, so that they are difficult to see because your eyes have yet to adjust from the blinding sunlight. And then it’s too late. Boom, you hit one, and you can only hope your tyre survives.

When on a road you don’t know, it pays to drive a bit more slowly. Or follow a local, he will most probably know where to swerve or go slow.

But not only potholes are responsible for punctures. You might have noticed that there is usually quite a bit of debris on Joburg's roads. Pebbles and little pieces of rock that have been swept onto the street by the torrential rains, bits of wire, as well as old screws and nails. 


Photo: Barbara Bruhwiler

I don't know how it is that these screws and nails invariably end up in your tyre. One would think that your car squashes them flat to the ground, but nope, into your tyre they go.

Thankfully this is not a huge problem, normally, because they only cause a slow puncture. And help for this situation is easy to find: Just visit the next petrol station, and the attendants there are more than happy to squash a piece of rubber into the hole, pump up your tyre, and you’re good to go again. You pay something between 50 and 100 Rand, and it leaves them and you smiling. I mean, hey: where else can you get a car problem fixed for less than 10 Dollars?!

The dirt and debris on the road cause another car problem that was previously unknown to me: chips and cracks in the windscreen. If it is cracked, you have to replace your windscreen because it is dangerous to drive around with it as it can burst into a million pieces at any given moment. For instance when you hit a -  you guessed it - pothole. But chips can be fixed, if they are smaller than a coin, and it is wise to do it. PG Glass repairs them for a very reasonable price, and having it done will prevent the windscreen from cracking. Your car insurance might even pay for it, and the PG Glass mobile squat will come to your house or office and do the job right there. Very convenient.

I would also recommend you become a member of the AA of South Africa. For less than 900 Rand per year you get the peace of mind knowing that they will come and sort you out if you’re ever stuck on the side of the road. [Note by editor: a towing service might also be included in your car insurance, so make sure you check and if so, keep the number handy in your car.]

When it comes to changing tyres, my better half and I reckon we are quicker doing it ourselves instead of waiting for the AA squad to come and help us. But we don’t get as much practice anymore because we have a different car now. 

Do you want to know how we came to have a different car? 

As it happened, one sunny day we were once again busy changing a tyre after hitting a pothole on a road in Mpumalanga when the jack slipped on the gravel under our vehicle and got stuck in the car’s body. We had to flag down the next car and ask the driver if we could please use his jack to lift our vehicle and retrieve our jack, as silly as this sounds. The people who helped us handed us over a brand new, untouched jack, still wrapped in plastic. Seeing that they had obviously never had to change a tyre, my husband instantly knew he wanted the car they were driving. 

For those of you who want to know: it was a Land Rover Discovery. [Note by editor: there is an even split among our South African friends: Some swear by the Land Rover Discovery, and some swear by anything made by Toyota, like the Fortuner; it is safe to say that no one swears by an Audi Q7, and I think I know why.]

Many of you will be travelling over the festive season. Before you are leaving, you might want to become a member of the AA and find out where the spare wheel and jack are hidden in your car. And maybe pack some wet wipes. Just to be on the safe side…

Have a safe journey, and lots of fun in your holidays!


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

[Another note by editor: I'm very grateful for these tips. Please take them seriously. I can so relate to this story, because, as you might know, I've had my fair share of tire adventures while living here in South Africa, some of which I haven't even told yet. Like the time in Namibia when we had four - I am NOT lying - tire punctures in just a few hours. On a deserted road with no other cars coming by the entire time. I will share it with you some day. For the stories I did write about, see Expat Tip: Always Keep Tire Lock Nut in Your Car and Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.]

December 18, 2012

Things I Won't Miss

What do gas heaters and William Nicol Drive have in common?

They are both on the list of things I'll be glad to leave behind in South Africa. 

Maybe you're surprised I do indeed have such a list. A collection of all the stuff I won't shed a single tear over when it comes time to say goodbye. I know I've been going on and on about how great life in South Africa has been. I've written about the things I WILL cry over at length, and I'm not even done with writing about them, but today I'd like to mention the other side. 

The dark side.

Call it self-preservation. Because thinking of all that I hate here will make leaving that much easier.

What prompted me to write this post was when I gave my cancellation notice to Afrihost, our internet service provider. I had to go online, indicate my termination date, and then select the reason from a drop-down box. Guess what one of the choices was? 

"The cables keep getting stolen."

I won't miss the fact that in this country, stolen cables are a major reason people are canceling their internet service, along with relocation and death.

This is what I also won't miss about South Africa:

South African power outlets (the two you get per room) and the
resultant carnage of multi-strips and extension cords
In almost three years in South Africa, I have never once scored
a roll of aluminum foil that didn't do this

The mere existence of such a thing as a Traffic Register Number

We haven't had any bad experiences in this regard but I won't
miss the idea that there are crime hotspots out there

Lugging this clunker anywhere I want to run one of our appliances

Seriously, the world can live without this. Looks (and tastes)
 like pickled engine oil
The fact that I'm banned from all cool American cheap stuff

Hunting around for the tire lock nut before changing a tire.
Oh, and having to change tires in the first place. Never once
had to do that in almost twenty years in the U.S.

A library system from circa 1962

Parktown Prawns

Living behind high voltage...
...and barbed wire

South African newspapers

Having to get out the heavy machinery just to hang a simple picture

Having to talk traffic cops through their own laws and being
threatened with arrest every time I get pulled over

Joburg rush hour


Minibus taxis jumping the line

The slowest internet connection in the world

Gas heaters
My Eskom file

I'm sure some of you can add a thing or two to this list. What's yours?

***

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December 17, 2012

Day of Reconciliation

I thought I'd interrupt the regular programming here on Joburg Expat to talk about today's holiday here in South Africa.

Or, to be precise, yesterday's holiday. Just so no one is cheated out of a holiday, the government usually makes one of the surrounding weekdays a holiday when it falls on a weekend. Though there have been arguments about this when it wasn't so, if I remember correctly.


Anyway, December 16th is the Day of Reconciliation here in South Africa.

Did anybody know that? 

I bet you didn't. Like me, you're probably  happy to take any holidays you can get that don't involve any family descending on your home or a lot of cooking on your part. And there are a lot of those in South Africa, which is what makes life here so nice. Lots of holidays without extra chores.

But this one in particular is worth thinking about, because of its special symbolism. 

December 16th, you see, is the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Which was fought on the banks of the Ncome River in Natal by less than 500 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius against an overwhelming force of over 10,000 Zulu warriors led by King Dingane. Over 3,000 Zulus were said to be killed that day, while the Voortrekkers only suffered three wounded. Until 1994 December 16th was celebrated as the Day of the Vow or Day of the Covenant, based on the vow taken by the settlers that should they win the battle, they would build a church and always commemorate the day as holy. 

Interestingly, a sizable number of indigenous people fought on the side of the Voortrekkers, and in a previous massacre by Dingane's men of hundreds of settlers, including women and children, an even larger number of black servants were killed. (That massacre, following the betrayal and murder of Piet Retief during a visit to Dingane's kraal, was one of the events leading up to the Battle of Blood River). So one can't simply view this history through a racial lens. It's as much a result of the politics of the times (for instance, Dingane's rivalry with King Mzilikazi, ruler of Matabeleland, later Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe) as it was a clash between white settlers and black tribes.

I've summarized some of the Voortrekker history in a previous blog post, In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkersin case you are interested to find out more.

It just so happens that another historical event falls on that particular day. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, was formed on December 16th, 1961, under Nelson Mandela's leadership, signaling a marked shift from passive resistance to an armed struggle to bring apartheid to an end. I've also written about Umkhonto we Sizwe and the secret meetings at Liliesleaf Farm, where some of its members were captured during a raid in 1963. Visit Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial for more information.

With the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, something had to be done about this holiday. Naming it the Day of Reconciliation and commemorating both events starting in 1995 is, in my mind, yet another building block in Nelson Mandela's great legacy. 

Happy Day of Reconciliation, everyone!

For more information on South African holidays and the Battle of Blood River, visit www.info.gov.za and Wikipedia.

December 13, 2012

The Not So Smart Shopper

One of the first items I added to my wallet here in South Africa was a PicknPay's Smart Shopper card. Soon followed by Woolworth, Dis-Chem, Clicks, and MySchool cards.

It's no small feat to obtain some of these cards, so that owning them constitutes a victory in and of itself, letting you forget why you even have those cards in the first place.


Much like the Social Security Number in the United States, here in South Africa it is their ID number people are frequently asked to supply for various services they sign up for, and the forms capturing this information often only allow for a South African 13-digit ID number. Needless to say, your foreign passport number doesn't fit the template.

As you can imagine, trying to convince the powers that be that you should be entitled to a discount card even though your passport number is only 9 digits long is a bit of a mission.

And once you've been able to sign up in spite of this hurdle, it might take anywhere from a month to never to actually receive your card in the mail.

Like I said, once you are the proud owner of any of these cards, you are so chuffed (yes, I'm definitely sounding South African by now!) to have them that you actually never bother to find out how it is that they work.

Because of course they don't all work in a straightforward way like you might be used to.

When we still lived in North Carolina, one of my favorite grocery stores was Harris Teeter. In no small measure this was due to my Harris Teeter discount card. Which came - totally revolutionary at the time - as a key-chain for your car keys. I'm sure nowadays it's available as an app on your phone. Every time you shopped, your card was swiped, and all the discounts for that purchase instantaneously appeared on your receipt.

Instant gratification, American style.

Here, not so much. Some cards work the same way, like the Woolworth's one. They always ask you for it, and you usually get some kind of discount. Which is yet another reason why Woolworth's is my favorite South African grocery store.

At PicknPay, where I don't shop all that frequently, they always swipe my card as well. But there never seem to be any discounts. One recent morning, it occurred to me to ask the cashier what all that swiping actually does.

"Oh, you are getting smart shopper points," she said. "You can use them on your purchases."

"Well in that case, I'd like to use my points on this purchase," I said.

"Oh no, I can't do that. You'll have to go OVER THERE to claim your points first."

Over There was a battery of monitors near the entrance. You had to swipe your card there, select from a range of options on the touchscreen, and print out your smart shopper discount, much like a gift card, that could then be scanned at checkout.

If, in fact, the monitor in question was working.

The problem is, I only ever remember my smart shopper points when I pull out my card as I'm loading items onto the belt from my cart - excuse me, trolley - and by that time it's too late for this purchase. Because who wants to give up their spot at the cashier to trek over to the smart shopper points redeeming station?

I confess I've only ever redeemed my points once. I'm a Not So Smart Shopper.

It just seems too much work to keep up with your discount cards. And the loyalty discounts in South Africa are often so laughably small, it's not worth the bother.

I did bother, however, with my Clicks card the other day. Buying medicines there quite frequently, I thought it would be worth my while to redeem my points.

To do that, it turns out, you have to go online. Register your Clicks card there and then redeem your points.

If only it was that simple. In order to register your card, you need - you guessed it, right? - a South African ID number. But at least there was a helpful phone number posted nearby, and when I called - the perfect time to make these calls is when you are stuck in traffic - I was asked to email a copy of my passport together with my Clicks card number to a certain customer service email address. Which somehow I found time to do, and lo and behold, about three weeks later I received a reply that everything was now sorted out online. More out of curiosity than anything else, I logged on and was indeed able to print vouchers for each of the months I had accumulated points in the past year. It came out to a little over R100.

Clicks card points, redeemed

I was so excited - nothing like holding actual free money in your hands - and proceeded to the nearest Clicks pharmacy, ready to use this money before leaving South Africa. Except then I saw all this mouthwash and shampoo we could stock up on and ended up spending over R600 total. Not the best way to go and save money.

Especially when your packers inform you a week later that they're not taking mouthwash or shampoo, or any liquids for that matter.

I have no idea how the Dis-Chem card works, but I don't have the energy to find out.

I do know that I haven't been a Smart Shopper in terms of parking either, as I was recently informed by a friend. So, next up: Free Parking!

What's your Smart Shopper experience here in South Africa?

December 10, 2012

The Expat Game in Reverse (Canceling Services)

So I've finally had to confront the inevitable reality of our family soon leaving South Africa when faced with the necessity of canceling a whole bunch of services. Which, you'll remember, I so painstakingly signed up for almost three years ago. It was like reliving those early days in reverse.

Thankfully, canceling isn't nearly as laborious as signing up. No one asks you for passport copies or lease agreements, for one. And most of it can be done over the phone or via email, or even online.

But even canceling things is not without its pitfalls here in South Africa. For instance, you could once again run into the problem that you're only the spouse and therefore not allowed to cancel. So one piece of advice upfront: If your spouse leaves before you do to take on a  new assignment halfway around the world, it might be a good idea to get a bunch of his or her passport copies certified in advance (any police station will do it), or, even better, to transfer account privileges to you, just for the purpose of canceling. I'm sure the latter would leave you grumbling to no end that you didn't think of that sooner, like for all those times you've called up Telkom at month-end to buy extra gigabytes because invariably you've gone over your cap, and being told you're not privileged to fashion such transactions.

Most services have a one-month cancellation policy. So as long as you cancel a month in advance, there is no penalty. Or you might even be able to cancel anytime during the month leading up to departure, as long as it's before the billing is done.

Just in case you're ever in this situation, here is my list of services to cancel. Maybe you'll want to earmark this for future reference.

  1. Electricity (Eskom)
  2. Water/garbage (City of Joburg)
  3. Cable TV (Multichoice)
  4. Insurance (Standard Bank)
  5. Tracking service (Netstar)
  6. Bank account (Standard Bank)
  7. Garden Service (Jean's Garden Service)
  8. Recycling (Mama She)
  9. Pest Control (Rentokil)
  10. Musical instrument rental (Lovemore Music)
  11. Post Office Box (SAPO)
  12. Domestic Help (UIF)
  13. Cellphone (Vodacom)
  14. Phone (Telkom)
  15. Internet (Afrihost)

The services you want to pay the most attention to are the ones you have an outstanding debit order for (or an automatic charge on your credit card). The service provider will need to cancel the debit order with your bank, so you need to notify them at least a month ahead of time. All the others? Frankly, you are entitled to just say "screw them." Or at least think it, because we are in polite company here. First of all, you're moving overseas and your credit history here in South Africa hardly matters, and secondly, chances are that you already got screwed by them plenty.

But just for the purpose of giving you a blow-by-blow account should you ever need it, I've gone diligently through all the steps for you. Such is my dedication to helping you, fellow expat. Sorry if the below post is a bit boring, but it's hard to find excitement in the cancellation of services.

In my case, numbers 1 and 2 were easy, in that I didn't really have to cancel anything. Our landlord is the account holder (which, if you'll remember, caused some issues with Eskom, because we kept being billed for "interest" accrued, as it later turned out, due to the previous tenant's sloppy payment history) so there will just be a little bit of accounting to be done between us to figure out what amounts we'll be responsible for versus the new tenants (because of course the billing cycle doesn't coincide with month-end), but that's all. Oh, and just for the record, I idly considered withholding R795 from our final Eskom bill, the amount of those interest charges plus reconnection fees I've never been able to get back over the course of the last 2 years, even though God knows I tried valiantly. But then I thought of the poor tenants coming in after us and inheriting our account, and saddling them with the same burden all over again. Power turned off because outstanding payment, power turned on again after charge of a reconnection fee, etc etc. I just couldn't bring myself to do that to them. Chances are, they are fellow expats. Heck, they've probably even been reading this blog and know who I am!

So, dear successor tenants, consider this as one for the team.

Number 3 was achieved entirely over the phone. You call up Multichoice, give them your customer number or your ID number, tell them on what date you'd like the DSTV service canceled, and choose whether  you'd like the refund sent in the mail or applied directly to your bank account. You don't have to return any equipment as you typically purchase the PVR decoder upfront, leaving you now to do as you see fit with it. For instance, you could try and sell it to a newly arrived expat, which was my plan until our decoder broke just two weeks prior to leaving. Same as the fate of our microwave and one of the TVs. Honestly, I appreciate these appliances helping me out in a way by removing the need to make decisions as to what to do with them, but could they have lasted just a few weeks longer until such time that we are actually leaving? Anyway, I haven't received said refund yet but in this case am cautiously optimistic. Not that I really care, just being able to cancel these things without incident is a moral victory already. But of all the South African service providers, Multichoice has always been the most professional. You can lament their meager programming if you want, but their service is good.

Similarly, number 4 was so laughably easy that I've been a bit suspicious if it really can be true. I sent an email to the person at Standard Bank Insurance Brokers who's been sending me our contract and updates to it, saying that we are ending our insurance by year-end, I got sent an acknowledgement, and that was it. I already did the same when I sold the car and it worked like a charm. I even got  an unasked-for refund to account for the prorated fee that month. So - if you're a new expat and looking for insurance, you might want to go with Standard Bank, just for the peace of mind of knowing it will make your life easier at the back end.

Number 5 was also easy, and instantaneous. I sold the car, called up Netstar, and they canceled the service right away, as well as the debit order. No prorated refund there, however, at least not that I remember, but the monthly fee is so low it hardly matters.

Numbers 7, 8, and 9 pretty much went the same way. I always pay these services upfront for the next month or even quarter, so cancelling them was just a matter knowing when to cut off the payments and sending a notification email.

Number 10 was a matter of returning the instrument in question to the place we picked it up from (insert big sigh of relief here that I remembered to keep it away from the packers), made easier by the fact that I have good friends who will volunteer to do such things for me (thanks again, Natalie!) to save me time during the hectic week of packing. Emailing the return receipt to the person in charge of rentals made sure that our credit card won't be charged from now on.

I haven't attended to Number 11 yet but was told all I have to do is return the key to the nearest Post Office. PO Box rentals are paid for a year in advance, and I doubt there'll be any refunds, but again it's not a terribly big deal. One thing I've been idly wondering about is whether there is such a thing as a forwarding service, like there is in the U.S.? But then again it matters little: I'm pretty sure they won't forward internationally, and forwarding to a friend's address here seems cumbersome - what, in all honesty, is there to forward? We only ever seem to receive the pest control bill and bank statement in our PO Box to begin with, so it hardly seems worth the bother.

Number 12 is fairly straightforward. If you haven't been making any payments into your domestic's unemployment insurance fund (which you should), it is just a matter of giving your domestic notice. It would also be very nice of you to help her find a new job with friends or by advertising in your estate newsletter, for instance. And it would also be nice of you to pay her some kind of bonus for her loyalty, which will also help tide her over the coming months if she doesn't have a job lined up yet. If you are in fact paying into the UIF on a monthly basis, you need to terminate the employee by filling out form UI-19 (available under the "forms" tab on www.labour.gov.za). It's the same form you filled out when registering your domestic, so use that one as a template and just add the termination date, then email that form to webmaster@uif.gov.za. Technically, your domestic has then the rigth to bring a copy of that form, together with her payslips and last month's bank statement, to the nearest UIF office to claim unemployement compensation, though I doubt that many will do that.

Leaves numbers 13, 14 and 15 to deal with, and there is a reason I've left those till last. The procedure for canceling your cellphone contract with Vodacom is to call up a specific cancellation number and have them email you a cancellation quote. They basicaclly calculate the remaining amount of money over the rest of your contract period and charge you a percentage - not sure exactly, 75%? -  of that. That quote is only valid for 7 days, so no need to request it until 7 days within leaving. Mine came out to R7,000 or something similar. Yikes! And here I thought I had gotten such an amazing deal when I upgraded it after 2 years and got a brand-new iPhone for no added fee. At least now I know where that fee was hidden. Only if you pay this cancellation fee will Vodacom cancel the outstanding debit order, so it seems there is no good way out of this one. Getting a prepaid phone in the first place is probably the only way to avoid this, so once again, something to think about on the front end.

This gets me to Telkom. No surprise that I'd have to tussle with them one more time and give in to their unbending ways. And here I thought I was in good shape, having had the foresight to trek there some time back with Noisette in order to elevate me from spouse status to that of account holder. And, trust me, that is a big deal. It's so nice to call them up and answer all their security questions and NOT have to listen to that humiliating "I see here that you are not the account holder, please have the account holder call us" line. It's frustrating enough to have to listen to their ONE on-hold song over and over again, and to have to inevitably tell them your telephone number even though you JUST punched it in as part of their voice mail query.

Anyway - the problem with canceling your Telkom line is that if you have a 3rd party internet provider (Afrihost, in my case), you have to cancel your data package and line rental with them first. So far so good, I thought, and called up Afrihost, somewhere towards the end of the previous month. They told me to go online to their client zone and cancel my service there, selecting the appropriate date, and all was well. I wrote down the reference number and proceeded to call back Telkom with it. But Telkom, it turns out, isn't satisfied with you giving them a reference number (I have yet to figure out what on Earth reference numbers are even for here in South Africa - all they serve to do is fill up space on paper. And perhaps soothe your irate self by making you think you're doing something useful). They want your internet provider to issue a line cancellation, and they need it one month ahead of time to cancel your debit order. So back I'm on the phone with Afrihost, asking them to do just that. "No mam," was the answer, "We can't do that." If they cancel the line right away, you see, even if they put a future date on it, Telkom is prone to indeed cancel it right away, leaving you without internet.

If there is one thing I'm quite sure of, in light of living in a house without anything in it these last few weeks, it is that I do not also want to be stripped of my internet. Even if it is agonizingly slow.

So I went back and forth a couple of times between Afrihost and Telkom, but it was to no avail. I'll have to wait until the end of December for Afrihost's system to issue an automatic line cancellation notice to Telkom, at which date Telkom will (hopefully) take note of it and cancel our debit order for 30 days in the future, meaning we'll have to pay Telkom for one extra month. It's really not a big deal, as the line fee is only R130 or something similar (I canceled all other Telkom services some time back, seeing as I didn't get a dial tone for weeks at a time - note to future expats: A landline is a waste of time; only use Telkom for the ADSL line and get everything else - including an UNCAPPED bundle, from another provider such as Afrihost).

I've left out number 6, closing our bank account, because that will have to come last, probably only after we've left (with no doubt a few more forms to be filled out allowing us to transfer our money back out of South Africa - remember my foreign currency escapades?), to make sure the credit card charges can be settled and whatever else is outstanding.

Except my traffic tickets from the last 5 months. I'm definitely not paying those.

*** UPDATE *** It turns out that number 6, closing the bank account is very easy and straightforward. At least it was with Standard Bank. We sent a signed letter to the bank and asked for the bank account to be closed effective a certain date (the date we were leaving South Africa). We also asked for a wire transfer to our US bank with the amount of the funds left in the account. That took a little longer as they had to wait for the last payments to be cleared, like credit card etc, anything there was a delay on. It was all very easy to do, much easier than signing up for the bank account when moving TO South Africa. 

December 8, 2012

Christmas For Criminals

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Everybody knows the Festive Season is a dangerous time. We’ve all heard about Christmas trees catching fire, for instance.

And undoubtedly we are all aware of the jeopardy that lurks in refusing to meet the rest of the family. Even though the prospect of spending yet another five days in overcrowded quarters can be disheartening at best, we all know that it is far more dangerous to stay away when the clan’s matriarch has issued an invitation for the festivities.

Driving to the family gathering has its fair share of unsafe moments, what with the howling, crying and shouting that comes from the backseat of the packed vehicle, causing the most diligent driver to be prone to sudden swerves – or at least sudden swearing.

Once we have arrived at said quarters, there is the danger of cat fights between sisters and rows between brothers, while Mums spend hours slaving in the kitchen with pursed lips, preparing the turkey and its trimmings. 

All the participants at the family gathering take on the risk of never having a single moment, one single calm minute, to themselves.
Strike While The Iron Is Hot, A New Madam & Eve Collection
by Stephen Francis & Rico.

In every family there is also someone like my Uncle Nick whose jokes will make you want to jump out of the window – a highly unhealthy pastime.

And we haven’t talked about those extra kilos that always pile up on our hips. Yes, the Festive Season bears dangers to our health. Raising our cholesterol. Giving us a hangover. And perhaps leading to a near heart-attack. 

In Johannesburg, the Festive Season also holds certain risks that are not directly related to the family’s social dynamics. It is a time of the year when criminals are most active. Call it the criminal’s Christmas, if you want.

And it starts early. Those of you who have lived in this country for a while know that South Africans are early risers. If you want to avoid traffic jams in Joburg, you have to be on the road before 6 am. And did you know that 5 to 8 am is considered peak time in Joburg’s gyms? So not only do Joburgers get up extremely early, but they are really up and running, or swimming a kilometre or hopping and stepping in a strenuous aerobics class.

But I’m getting off track. What I wanted to say was: South Africans are early risers, and they are early Christmas shoppers, too. By mid-October, you will find your local supermarket decked in Christmas decorations and delicatessen, and plenty of reindeer and snowmen will be grinning at you as you are buying your groceries.

No wonder that the well-organized in these parts start making provisions for the Festive Seasons early.

The well-organised criminals, on the other hand, are very well aware of these habits. And they know that many Christmas shoppers carry large amounts of cash with them. So pick-pocketing reaches its peak in the weeks before Christmas, and it is a good idea to a) use your credit cards instead of cash and b) always keep a close eye on your bag.

Pickpockets are incredibly skilled. Someone once stole my wallet out of my handbag, with me attached to the latter. It must have happened while I was squatting down, inspecting children’s shoes on the lowest rack in a shop, having pushed my handbag to my back so it wouldn’t dangle in front of me. The thief had to squeeze his hand into a slim opening, open a zipper inside my handbag (!), and get the wallet out of it. All the while I was blissfully unaware of what was going on behind, or to be precise, on my back.

Incredibly skilled, as I said. If only it hadn’t been so annoying.

Because people need more cash during the Festive Season, there are also criminals who position themselves close to Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs), ready to strike when there is a good opportunity. At this time of the year, it is even more important to only withdraw money from an ATM at a busy spot and during daytime hours. Don’t use AMTs unless there are plenty of other people around you who would witness if you were to be robbed. That seems to be the best strategy to avoid being targeted by criminals.

Now apart from your wallet, criminals will also go after your house during the festive season. It’s the long summer and school holiday, and the majority of South Africans, poor and rich alike, will travel to meet with their families for Christmas. For most of them, the holidays start early (surprise, surprise!), and between mid-December and New Year’s the roads and shopping malls will be pleasantly quiet in Johannesburg. Some neighbourhoods will even look nearly deserted, which makes them an inviting target for criminals.

If you are going away for the holidays, I would strongly recommend that you think about some protective measures to put in place. Here are some ideas of what you can do: Tell your security company about your absence; do not tell other people, and ask your maid to refrain from talking about your travelling; turn on your alarm system; if possible, ask your neighbours to keep an eye on what’s going on on your property.

Because of the frequent heavy storms and rains around Christmas in Joburg, it is a good idea to have someone check on your property on a regular basis anyway. They may have to prevent the pool from going green, wipe up water that somehow got into your house and threatens to ruin the carpets, keep the ants from making your house their home, make sure the power didn’t trip, and so on. This explains why at this time of the year, you will find plenty of ads from people who offer to house sit. South Africans know that it is not a complete waste of time to have someone looking after their home while they are away.

Now, the second part of this blog post sounds gloomy compared to the first part, doesn’t it? But think about it: There are just a few security measures you can take to try and avoid the dangers of pickpocketing and robbery. But when it comes to the dangers associated with spending days with the extended family in a crammed house, I feel much more helpless.

Does anybody out there have some tips on how to survive this?


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

December 5, 2012

The Last Time

I've been driving around my beloved Joburg almost in a daze this past week, running last minute errands. Everywhere I turn I seem to come across a sight which has me catching my breath.

Like the view of the Magaliesberg in the distance, especially after a rain clearing all the dust, when driving up William Nicol from Sandton.

Obviously this is not the view from William Nicol but it is the Magaliesberg in all their glorious beauty

Or, the opposite, the Sandton skyline when going the other way.

The street vendors hawking their wares.

The parking guards in the rearview mirror, waving at me and then cupping their hands for their coin, saying "Thank you Mami."

Women carrying loads on their heads and babies strapped to their backs.

Even - don't laugh - the inevitable broken robots. And the taxis sneaking past traffic, then squeezing in and "thanking" me with a quick flash of the emergency lights.

Every time I glimpse any of this, I can feel a pit in my stomach. Because if not this time, it will be very soon that I will have seen them for The Last Time.

It's not an entirely terrible pit, mind you, more bittersweet. Kind of like being in love.

Because I would not have wanted to miss any of this. Even at the price of now having to say goodbye.

It's not just the Joburg sights that do this to me. As our days here are winding to an end, there are more and more The Last Time's happening to me.

Yesterday was the last full day of school at Dainfern College. With academic assemblies galore and tributes to our principal who's leaving as well. I'm sure I was not the only one with tears in my eyes, but I had slightly different reasons.

It was The Last Time that morning that one of my kids had yelled Mooooom, where is my school tie? at me.

The Last Time being handed a program guide by a smiling student upon entry in the auditorium.



The Last Time being greeted by our principal and hearing a collective Gooooooodmorningmrwebbnstaff in reply.

The Last Time smiling over how it sounds when South Africans say "year," as in We've had such a wonderful yurr.

The Last Time seeing my kids walk up the stage to receive their awards.

The Last Time hearing yet another excellent speech, followed by an impromptu staff performance of Gangnam Style.

You had to be there to believe it. The high school leadership in their robes dancing to Gangnam Style

The Last Time standing up and belting out Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika.

I felt myself reaching down to my purse several times, angling for some stray tissues to dab at my eyes. Which were impossible to find (the tissues, not the eyes), as my purse, as an escape hatch from my house that is being ransacked by a gang of packers, has become a catch-all for everything that might be needed in the next month. It is positively dangerous to put your hand in there. When I set it on the passenger seat of my car, the seat belt alarm comes on, mistaking it for a person that should be buckled in.

I better get me a big box of tissues. Because it hasn't even been The Last Time seeing any of my close friends yet.

Couldn't have said it better myself

December 1, 2012

Let Professionals Sell Your Car for You

The following post is sponsored by Webuycars.co.za.


Dear Joburg Expat readers:

I love how Sine brings people and services together on this site, helping us all to stay safe and sane. I admire people who have the foresight of sharing with others what they need in certain situations after they were there themselves.

My name is Dirk Van Der Walt, and my brother Fanie and I have been partners in our business, Micra Motors, since 2001. We are the proud owners of Webuycars.co.za and its wholesale warehouse in the N4 Gateway Light Industrial Park in Pretoria East.

Allow me to introduce ourselves to you and tell you what we can do for you and why.

People emigrate, people get promoted, they divorce, they inherit a deceased’s estate. Whatever the reason, people often need to sell their car.

Whether you are a professional executive or a Dainfern mom, you might not be as courageous and resourceful as Sine to try and sell your own car yourself, and then write an article on your blog about the experience.

That is where we come in.

We are www.webuycars.co.za. We offer a Professional Car-Buying Service, where we come to your home or your workplace and buy your car from you, doing absolutely everything for you in a jiffy, and still paying you a reasonable price for your car. To get started, you complete our Online Application Form and within less than a day you will have a ball-park price indication of how we see the value of your car. If you agree to that then your car could well be sold that very same day. You do not need to prepare the car as we do everything for you. We do all the paperwork and formalities and all you do is sit back, relax, and drink your coffee.

We have bought more than 13,000 cars over the last twelve years. We deal with people from all walks of life. We serve Tom, Dick, and Harry, but we also serve the foreign embassies and the odd celebrity.

To expats we provide two unique services: First, we allow you to sell your car to us in advance, we pay you a deposit, and you get to use your car for another month (or even more) until you leave. That way you do not need to go and rent a car, and you do not have to worry about scrambling around at the last minute trying to recover the money invested in the car.

Second: If you get long term visitors from abroad (as Sine has written, they may come often and stay long!) who may need to use a car for a three to nine month period or so, you may want to speak to us about our Guaranteed Buy-Back Offers, where we sell them a car and buy it back again at an agreed price. This might also be an option for yourself if you are here on a short-term assignment.

We are very proud of the professionalism of our staff and the compliments we regularly receive for the utility and convenience we provide.

Our service makes selling your car a safe and hassle-free experience. You need not worry about advertising, taking calls, entertaining strangers at your home who might want to kick your tires and take your car for a quick spin around the block.

You need not worry about doing a roadworthy test, completing paperwork and contracts, or filling out a change of ownership form; we do it all for you, and you need not go anywhere or expose yourself in any way to the public and the hassles that usually brings with it.

So, please hop over to www.wbc.co.za, browse around, and feel free to ask any questions you may have. We would love to earn your business.

Dirk

Webuycars.co.za Directors:
Dirk van der Walt 082 870 1500 dirk@webuycars.co.za
Fanie van der Walt 082 870 4266 faan@webuycars.co.za