Category: Economics

How South Africa’ fuel fund turned into anti-consumer profit markets for oil dealers

LAST NIGHTS massive fuel hike, represents a record increase in the price of petrol products. The immediate result say economists of Rand weakness, and taxation by central government. Hidden from public view and the narrative of biannual price hikes as the new normal, is the backstory involving the sale of South Africa’s strategic oil reserves, their supposed “rotation” and the ensuing fraud associated with the former Zuma administration.

The result has been a strange parallel story of massive profits being made by oil dealers and involving oil traders, whilst motorists get stumped at the pump, and without a coherent electric vehicle policy articulated by central government moving forward, one which might mitigate the future effects of oil price increases.

According to Bloomberg there is still money to be made in South Africa out of fuel, “there’s no place quite like Saldanha Bay. When prices slumped in 2014,” says  “the  trading houses generated outsize profits by storing millions of barrels of crude in the deep-water harbor north of Cape Town.”

The same article goes on to tout the commercial potential of the storage area which once housed South Africa strategic oil supply.

The Strategic Fuel Fund (SFF), first created by the apartheid government during sanctions, was meant to cushion the consumer against oil price spikes and dollar fluctuations. Instead,  it has proved to be nothing more than a cash cow for close associates of Jacob Zuma and his family, in a corruption case known as Oilgate.

In May of 2016, there were revelations that former minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson “had sold off the Strategic Fuel Fund (SFF) reserves without the go-ahead of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan.”

The latest taxes may represent a claw-back strategy by treasury, but need to be seen in the contest of another corruption investigation involving the apparent allocation of oil-fields in the DRC and Nigeria, and open speculation surrounding the misappropriation of government funds, to the tune of R100bn and involving Khulubuse Zuma 

All pointing to government involvement in a scam to move away from a strategic investment benefiting the economy and broader public, towards continued private manipulation of the fuel supply.

The result is an unavoidable increase of input costs across all sectors of the economy which can only harm growth. Weaning South Africans off the petrol habit, and moving towards tax incentives for the introduction of energy efficient electric vehicles, is a policy which is perhaps long overdue.

In this respect, the country is far behind the West.

 

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Liberalism’s ideologues & their coalfaced discontents

IT WAS the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who said: “No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.” While the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche remarked: “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us” and still Thomas Mann opined: “If you are possessed by an idea, you find it expressed everywhere, you even smell it.”

The reason I take the opportunity to provide readers with some philosophizing on the ‘history of ideas’, rather than the ‘idea of history’, is that there has been a lot of solipsising lately on the issue of liberalism and its purported antithesis, socialism, in the runup to and aftermath of the DA federal conference, billed as the ‘greatest opposition event ever’.

For those who might not already know, a solipsism (or circular logic) according to the urban dictionary is also “the belief that the person holding the belief is the only real thing in the universe. All other persons and things are merely ornaments or impediments to his or her happiness.”

Just how this applies to South African politics will become clearer. To begin, there has thus been a plethora of verbiage surrounding a relatively new idea in popular discourse, that of ‘black liberalism” with equal bouts of critique from humdingers, curmudgeons and opinion-makers on the left, schooled in dialectical materialism and political economy.

Thus Eusebius McKaiser’s A black liberal is not an oxymoron was followed by Mazibuko K Jara Black liberalism is an apology for capitalism  and Richard Pithouse The liberal licence to kill and more recently, Mmusi Maimane’s Building an African liberal agenda.

Jara opines that McKaiser’s “reclaiming of liberalism is ultimately flawed because it does not question capitalism’s core logic — the rights, freedoms and power of capitalists to maximise profits on the basis of appropriating the commons through the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the exploitation of labour and natural resources.”

Pithouse on the other hand raised an awkward caveat whilst attacking liberalism at its historical core, by listing its alleged policy sins. Despite its many problems, and yes, there are some positives, there is at the face of it, a common dilemma of seeing everything one disagrees with as mere “ornaments or impediments to happiness.” In South Africa,” writes Pithouse ” a high price has been paid for the ease and frequency with which attempts to assert principle in struggle — including commitments to feminism, democracy and, on occasion, even basic honesty — have been denigrated and dismissed as “liberal”.”

All this was water off a duck’s back so far as Maimane was concerned. A rallying speech by the leader of the old “Liberal Party” was big on building liberal sound-bites but short on substance: “As African liberals, ” he said “we have chosen a hard road. We have chosen to stand up to dictators and bullies of all stripes, even when it is politically incorrect to do so. We have chosen to defend the free expression of ideas, even for people with whom we disagree and whose views make us angry.”

One invariably gets the same point though.

Hence one of the reasons for writing this piece, partly out of respect for Pithouse, who defends civil liberties in the same way that Maimane does, but does so without suggesting any alternatives to the two dominant poles in South African politics, nor bothering himself with a critique of the abysmal track-record of the dominant political movement, is to provide readers with some all important context. That’s the ruling party whose ideological framework is abundantly socialist versus the avowed liberalism of the major opposition,

Please feel free to arrive at your own conclusions.

As “bookish revolutionaries” to use Julius Malema’s phrase were debating the pros and cons of liberalism viz. vi. historical materialism and its view of all history being the result of ‘a dialectical clash, of opposing forces’, South Africans were being entertained by the spectacle of the National Mineworkers Union (NUM) threatening to end its support for the African National Congress (ANC): “if government continues with its renewable energy programme,” said NUM, “clean power would “destroy jobs and create ghost towns in coal mining areas.” Please bear with me.

Earlier last month the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) along with Transform RSA, and the coal-truckers industry, had attempted to interdict the Dept of Energy from signing a raft of IPP renewable contracts to no avail. That ripe Marxist language and dialectical critique emanating from our unions, was geared towards a previous era of the steam engine, coal factories, fossil fuel barons, and coal-faced workers suffering under the whip of capital, and not the emerging 4th industrial revolution predicated as it is on digital innovation, open source electronics, and abundant energy distributed amongst the commons, in a dematerialised world in which the unions too, own shares, was becoming clear.

The trouble with soviet-style super-socialism and its advocates in the unions, many of whose members appeared outfitted in fatigues and whose leaders, some of whom bore a close resemblance to Fidel Castro, began with the protagonists wanting to ‘monkey-wrench the entire system’, the self-same mixed ‘market socialist’ economy which taxes and hands out benefits, and whose state owned utility Eskom and its mega-coal projects, meant that these very same unions derived further benefits from any extension of coal-contracts that were also part and parcel of the Gupta corruption schemes. It is important to note as Min Radebe did, there was no direct connection between the threatened closure of some coal powered utilities ending their life-cycle and the IPP programme.

One can see an emerging pattern here, a similar problem experienced during the Cold War 1950s, the problematic Marxist vision of ‘willing workers of the world’ uniting under a shared common cause to fight off the bosses and shareholders in any country, in order to become, what exactly?

The Soviet Union?

Here in the South Africa of 2018, a period no longer marked by communism and the Cold War, the unions were essentially complaining about the potential loss of a paltry 30 000 jobs, whilst jeopardising the creation of 60 000 new jobs in the economy, and more to boot. The unions was prepared to compromise air quality, emissions, the health and safety of millions, while ransoming the entire country with regard to climate change. One could not get more solipsistic and obstinate if one tried. In the eyes of union bosses, what mattered most in this struggle, was happy workers. The poor seeking jobs and thus a growing and sustainable economy, in which economic models were not based upon annual bailouts, but upon reality, the facts behind an economic model which worked, for these persons, the poor for all intents and purposes, did not exist.

So let’s give a bash at answering the moot question left unanswered by our nation’s critics. What are the alternatives to the liberal market economy, if any? And since I am not a liberal as such, let me explain briefly, as economic scholer Zhang Weiwei does, one such model, the China Model, significant in that it has pulled millions out of poverty and unlike the West, has not experienced successive periods of boom and bust. And before I do, let me place my civil rights cards on the table, since I don’t support many of the authoritarian elements still at play within the China of today.

The guiding philosophy behind the ‘China Model’, according to Weiwei can be summarised as  “Seeking Truth from Facts not from Dogmas, whether East or West.”

Weiwei goes on to say: “From examining the facts, leader Deng Xiaoping found that neither the Soviet Model nor the Western Model really worked, hence Beijing decided to explore its own way of development appropriate to China’s own national conditions.”

The system he says is oriented towards people’s livelihood. “Whether economic, social or political reforms, they must all be down-to-earth and produce tangible benefits … in material, cultural and other terms. This is why China has succeeded in lifting over 700 million people out of poverty, accounting for nearly 80 percent poverty eradication in the world.”

Special economic zones in which economic experiments are allowed to prove themselves first before being adopted by the broader system, are another factor attributed to China’s success.

Food for thought in a country which, despite its ideological stance, is still top of the list of the Gini coefficient marking ours the most unequal society in the world.

Gauleiters, the authoritarian left and its defense of paramilitary politics in South Africa

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Fascist by any other name?

THAT some commentators and journalists are rising to the defense of paramilitary politics in South Africa is not all that surprising. Far-right spokesperson Simon Shear, whom the Daily Vox’s Sipho Hlongwane insists is required reading on the subject of the EFF and the urgent topic of whether self-proclaimed “Commander in Chief” Julius Malema, is a fascist or not, needs to be congratulated for setting the matter straight.

Yes, the EFF are a Marxist-Leninist party, and if anything, Malema is a Stalinist not a Fascist in the traditional sense of the word.

That Hlongwane should find himself quoting the author of a piece purporting to debunk Affirmative Action, and thus “The case against Affirmative Action” is typical of so many on the authoritarian left, who see in Malema many of the macho characteristics and atavistic impulses they too, would wish to emulate, yet also find the need to meekly reinterpret their party dictator and thus to apologise for his often strident and offensive comments, which exist alongside the steady racial barrage and ideological violence of his many lieutenants.

Hlongwane rushed into criticism of Van Onselen’s piece on the EFF, calling Malema a fascist, a piece which he believes is “an ideologically inconsistent mess, but the overall intended effect is to take concepts such as whiteness (no matter how many times that this doesn’t refer to white people, but a social construct of power), socialism, and even black consciousness off the table.”

If taking Affirmative Action off the table, to promote Milton Friedman, as Shear does, while dissing the new dawn Ramaphosa ANC and its politics of unity and centerism, the Maimane DA and its equal opportunity ‘property rights for all’, and thus the Rainbow Nation, isn’t in the same league, as dismissing all Marxists as simply the descendents of proto-fascists, then I don’t know what else would rate as a critique of the authoritarian centre of the new paramilitary left?

An authoritarian cabal whose pundits are apt to quote Marx, Fanon and Sankara, while forgetting that the anti-hegemonic ideals propagated by these politicos were essentially founded upon humanism and the love of freedom as much as they are bound up in dialectical materialism. Marx was a fervent champion of press freedom, even if this means tolerating the excesses of the tabloids, writes Mark Thomas, citing Marx himself who said the “press, in general, is a realisation of human freedom,”

Not only does the belligerent EFF have a ‘war council’, in possible contravention of our pacifist constitution, but in many ways, its paramilitary operations have centred around the cult of personality which has evolved around Malema. A man whose daily diatribe and steady output of race-talk exists right alongside the politics of hate, symbols of outrage, and acts of political thuggery, which are emblematic of both National Socialism under the Nazis and Communism under Joseph Stalin.

Racism, hostility and ideological cant, all too familiar for many South Africans who may remember similar periods in which paramilitary organisations have graced the political stage, often urging violence, whilst seeking to play the parliamentary card of political privilege — thus it is almost impossible to check Nuremberg Rallies if they happen to happen in Vereeniging, or to counter Malema’s aggressive “cut the throat of whiteness” comment in the runup to an election in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Whether it be the brownshirts and swastikas of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and the late Eugene Terreblanche or the Red attire of ‘White’ Communist Party leader W H Andrews, known as ‘Comrade Bill’, one of the Red leaders of the 1922 Rand Revolt, the denouement and rationale in authoritarianism, dictatorship and obedience to a leader at the expense of personal freedom, has always been the same.

In 1932 the South African Gentile National Socialist Movement of Louis Weichard emerged and quickly became known as the Greyshirts because of their clothing.

In 1939 a fascist and racist group known as the Ossewabrandwag (OB) was founded and along with its volkish symbolism, was also inspired by Adolf Hitler.

All were local South African fascist groups, and one should add that the term fascist does not necessarily connote a direct causal link with the politics of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Yet his fascist progeny have invariably emphasised ethnic, class and racial differences. Thus for the fascist right, it was Aryan race rhetoric which was used to organise amongst the various poor white immigrant communities, while for the fascist Afrikaner Reds, it was a strange mixture of class revolt and cruel desire to preserve economic advantage over their fellow black workers, and thus race privilege amongst the ranks of those with jobs, that drove their Marxist fantasy and inspired revolt.

A third not insignificant group known as New Order, emerged in 1940 under the leadership of  Oswald Pirow.

In the case of Julius Malema, like his nemesis Jacob Zuma, the imperatives of equality and civil rights for all, outlined by our constitution, appear to have been bent by sleight of hand and trick of tongue, into a perverse demand for land but only for those within the political laager, those closest to the Red authority at the Red centre, while the constitution itself is seen as merely an impediment to the leader’s ultimate stated goals of power for the sake of power and Totalitarianism by any other name. Malema’s Newcastle statements on slaughtering the opposition and land ownership for example, contradict his recent statements at New Brighton, all part and parcel of the get elected at any cost, and by any means campaign, and therefore the leader’s poetic license to say whatever needs to be said to any group, at any given time.

It was an admixture of right-wing groups, (and quasi-leftists), some armed with socialist ideas such as volkscapitalisme, which eventually became the National Party, a political organisation responsible for apartheid. The NP was openly affiliated to the International Gentile Movement, and sought special privileges for the Afrikaner to the exclusion of all other ‘race groups’ while creating an authoritarian state, a country whose economy still shares many of the defects associated with the socialism of former Eastern European Bloc countries.

Like these earlier periods, the misreading of seemingly egalitarian texts, whether the Bible or Das Kapital, combined with a volatile confluence of popular disgruntlement with the ruling party, racism in the form of anti-white hostility, and the lure of the land debate, all appear to have invigorated the paramilitary EFF party. Its leader, Julius Malema, not an emerging leftist ideological oracle, has been catapulted into media headlines, as the ranks at the forefront of the authoritarian left swell, and as demonstrated, are articulated by apparatchiks and gauleiters, who are not ashamed to draw ideas from the fascists on the far right when it suits them.

Hence the internal contradictions of the ANC itself, a party which risks losing elements within come the 2019 election, that have always aligned themselves with dictators from Lenin to Fidel Castro, and thus the politics of Hugo Chavez and Jacob Zuma. These “fascists” may have just found themselves a new political home. We wish them well.

NOTE: Gauleiter was the second highest Nazi Party paramilitary rank, subordinate only to the higher rank Reichsleiter and to the position of Führer.

 

 

National treasury adopts DA position on titledeeds

National Treasury has adopted the DA position on private property in effort to stem the massive shift in allegiances over the land question. “From April, the Treasury and the department of human settlements, will spend an estimated 1.6 billion rand over three years to reduce the backlog of residents without formal ownership of their homes by among other things, paying the legal conveyancing required to get the deeds registered to the proper owners.”

https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/economy/south-africa-hastens-title-deed-handover-to-poor-homes-13762332

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Malema’s meltdown on national television

IN an EFF press briefing screened by SABC, Julius Malema appears to be toying with his party’s claim to Zulu and Xhosa traditional land, in addition to all land and property in rural and urban areas.

At first he comes out firing from the hip on the Ingonyama Trust then quickly seems to realise that he is risking retaliation, provoking an aggressive response, he then appears to defend the right of the Zulu king to engage on the issue.

It’s like watching an individual with a dissociative or integration disorder.

The EFF, whose leader is a Pedi, want all land in the country – rural, urban, agricultural and residential –  to be nationalised, and subsequently leased out to citizens by the state.

Land ownership, is it so desirable?

PRIOR to 1994 persons defined as black did not possess the vote. The majority of people in South Africa were relegated to so-called independent homelands, most did not own land as such, and if they did, were dispossessed in one way or another by a labour system, which imposed a hut tax, drafted labourers onto the mines, and created a migrant population, which eroded both tribe and family, in the process shifting profit from the land, into the hands of the rand-lords and barons.

Some 87% of the land was thus owned by white persons under apartheid and only 13% by black persons. There was no child-care grant to speak of, no disability grant, pensions were skewed in favour of the white folk.

Today we all possess the vote, the social wage comprising child care grant, pensions, disability and veterans grant is growing, more black people own houses and vehicles than ever before and there is unprecedented level of economic activity and inclusion compared to similar periods during apartheid and sanctions.

More needs to be done. The country is beset by a taxation crisis, its fiscus strained by staggering levels of debt and its state-owned enterprises and interventionist strategies weighing heavily on the future outlook for the economy.

The controversial decision to adopt ‘expropriation of land without compensation’, taken at the ANC 54th Congress may seem like a panacea to socialists within the party and a magic bullet to members of the radical left opposition EFF, yet as both leaders of the DA and COPE have rightly pointed out, the constitution expressly forbids depriving citizens of property without compensation.

It is no policy to shout home about when South Africa is rated second on the world misery index after Venezuela, a country whose radical socialist programme the ANC is myopically imitating while under pressure from the far-left. Under Chavez, the country adopted nationalisation and expropriation as the solution to almost every problem, resulting in runaway inflation and a massive drop in living standards, in many respects a similar tragedy to what occurred in Zimbabwe.

Any foreigner listening to the opposition debate following SONA could be forgiven for believing that nothing substantial has changed since the first democratic election. The facts behind the reality of land ownership in South Africa are rather different than they were in 1994.

For starters, the post-apartheid state currently owns 14% of the land in the country , only 79.2% is in private hands.

Between 57-84% of homes owned and fully paid off in the country (depending on tenure) measured over the past year, were black owned, the result of mass state housing becoming available for purchase at low prices.*  This is not to say that the relative value of black-owned property versus white-owned property is something to be sneezed at, the value here is still undoubtedly skewed in favour of the white minority.

Likewise equity, when it comes to shares, 30% of the stock on the JSE is either in black hands, or in companies controlled by BEE, with the rest either “white-owned” or under foreign control. An uneven and unequal state of affairs that certainly deserves correcting. The question is how to close the gap? 

One need only examine two different models of socialism and their pedigrees to realise the abject lesson.  The one form of socialism is more consistent with the British welfare state than the hyperpopulism of Chavez and South Africa under Jacob Zuma, the other more consistent with Cuba and the Soviet Union than the Scandinavian social democracies in which a thriving market economy coexists with welfare as the result. 

One cannot have one’s cake and eat it is a popular saying that expresses the problem of two socialisms and not enough time and leeway to adopt or experiment with every socialist idea out there in the marketplace of ideology. The solution to Eskom for instance, isn’t to run the entire country like Eskom, again, our failing SAA and Metrorail systems offer stark reminders why the mantra of ‘jobs for life’, sheltered employment, cronyism, statism and nationalisation merely create unaffordable bureaucracies. 

The absence of economic calculation inherent to state bureaucracies has created a fertile bed for corruption and state capture, undoing the damage will of necessity entail frank and honest discussion as to what to do about these utilities. Adopting massive state intervention, without weeding out what has failed, from what works in our mixed economic system, is also not the solution to our countries troubles. 

Deregulation, competition, inclusion and participation are far better vectors of growth. I have already proposed the creation of an ‘energy commons‘ and ‘water commons’ in a deregulated environment, as a third way out of the socialism versus capitalism quagmire, the mess in which the bulk sale of services results in no service at all.

Is land ownership all that desirable if it comes at the expense of the social wage, dependent as it is on taxation? If all that one has is land but no access to capital, and no marketplace in which to sell one’s goods, what is the use of radical quick-fixes which merely return productive land over to subsistence agriculture?

Is the breakdown in social cohesion that will invariably result if the state is able to expropriate without compensation, really worth the trouble? White landowners, difficult as it may be, are unlikely to simply give up their land without costly legal battles, resulting in unintended and ancillary conflict. If anything the reality of implementing such a policy, one which would need to define both its victims and its beneficiaries, in terms that are anything but conducive to social cohesion, could make the land reform programme unworkable, at least without a resort to extra-legal and even violent means.

If there is no real security of tenure and the government not the courts is the final arbiter of who owns what — who is defined as ‘unwilling donor and willing recipient’ — what we will have will be no better than what occurred in countless failed economic systems, in which the state not the citizen comes first.

Despite the enormous gap in living standards which certainly need to be rectified (our Gini coefficient marking South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world), the Living Standards Measure (LSM) 10 has gone from 5% black in 2004 to 29% black in 2014. This is nothing to be sneezed at in the track record of our so-called ‘mixed economy’ or ‘developmental state’.

Another vector which analysts fail to explore, since it is often politically unpalatable,  is the fact that our population has grown from 20 million in 1960 to 52.98 million in 2013, which means we have more than doubled our population in 50 years. For every one job that would have been sufficient to provide an income and a house in 1960, three jobs must be created today.

Time for a four child only policy? Limiting our population over time would do a lot more to boost economic outcomes in the future than dooming generations to a form of land invasion multiplication in which invasions turn the countryside into nothing more than a slum chess board. One has only to examine China’s economic miracle to realise that densification alongside the building of entire new cities, and policies such as household responsibility under Deng Xiaoping, did more for the average worker than any rural reform under the previous Mao regime.

Another example I find fascinating is that of Singapore, for reasons that are very different to that provided by the Democratic Alliance. In fact I find it amazing that the opposition is unable to discuss the quasi-socialist policies implemented by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister. They are considered socialist since they entail some degree of intervention in the economic welfare of citizens and in a different manner than what is considered the norm in Western countries. 

Joseph Stiglitz in his New York times piece on the subject lists four distinctive aspects of the Singaporean model:

“First, individuals were compelled to take responsible for their own needs. For example, through the savings in their provident fund, around 90 percent of Singaporeans became home-owners.”

“Second, Singaporean leaders realised they had to break the pernicious, self-sustaining inequality that has characterised so much of the West. Government programmes were universal but progressive, while everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom, t make sure that everyone could have a decent life … Not only did those at the top pay their share of the public investments, they were asked to contribute even more to helping the neediest.”

Stiglitz then goes on to list the distribution of pre-tax income to help those at the bottom and investment in education and scientific research as points three and four.

Yes, there is an urgent and drastic need for land reform, just as there is need for better internet access for the poor, for food and climate security (in the form of food garden allotments and renewables), community tool-shops which replace DIY with Do-It-with-Others (DIWO), and for a raft of safety and social security measures, but none of these need arise as a result of nationalisation of private property and expropriation without compensation. In fact a social wage that is both tangible and living standards-related may be a far better approach to the problem at hand.

There is a grave risk of Ramaphosa (or Zumaphosa?) carrying forth the Marxist shibboleth of ‘nationalisation at all costs’ and ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ by any means, and thus the lifting of assets from citizens, simply robbing the wealthy in order to sate the poor, to its inevitable conclusion. The eminent danger of making decisions based upon purely political considerations and thus based upon ideology instead of reality, could well see South Africa adopting the failed policies of Venezuela and Zimbabwe, without any regard for the consequences. 

We could do a lot better by simply listening to what economists have to say and deriving solutions from the hard lessons which have come before.

Of the four objective goals listed below and published here nearly three years ago, published under a similar piece, only one has been adopted by our government. I therefore provide these again to raise the agenda for a new South African future.

Unconditional basic income grant – this is a payment once a month into your bank account, to all citizens of voting age, essentially outlawing poverty and preventing the worst excesses of the marketplace, such as the coercion of labour.

Income equalisation – in jobs that are seasonal, a central fund evens out the high and low periods, guaranteeing safety when there is no work, and creating savings when there is not.

Rent stabilisation – a form of rent control, sets maximum rates for annual rent increases and, as with rent control entitles tenants to receive required services from their landlords and to have their leases renewed.

Free education grant – a tertiary level grant to learners enabling access to higher education.

*Source: South Africa Survey 2016, SA Institute of Race Relations.

Hellkom like no SOE ever scorned (Part 1)

Herewith my experience attempting to relocate a Telkom line, Ed.

My first call to the Telkom operator from the line that is going to be relocated is unsuccessful, thus beginning a series of similar unfortunate phone calls. Each time I am asked by a machine to enter the number I am calling about and also my 13 digit ID number, only to have to repeat this information verbally to the operator, a case of pretending to be in the information age?

I explain that I am moving from Woodstock to Muizenberg. I give the exact street address and room number of the apartment, a duplex near the Beachfront. The person tells me the address is on google maps but not on the Telkom system. I need to give the ‘name’ of the apartment, she says. I tell her, I don’t know the exact name, but surely the street address and room number will suffice? She puts the phone down on me.

I arrive at my new address, and call Telkom again from a mobile phone. After about 40 minutes on hold, with an obsequious rich voice assuring me that I am being attended to, I give up, (It seems Telkom have two voices, one when soliciting services and another when demanding money — that irritating old apartheid Tannie must work when it comes to bad debts).

Next call I eventually get through after 20 minutes. Each call consumes an enormous amount from my capped mobile contract. There is no toll free relocation number to assist persons such as myself. No attempt to finesse the plight of those unfortunates wishing to relocate. I duly give the details of the apartment, including its “name”. “It’s a totally different area, says the operator, you will have to get a different number.” Fine I say, when can you relocate the service? I am told the relocation will take up to 7 working days.

Wishful thinking, after the expiry of this period, I call Telkom one again, only to be told that the relocation can take up to 21 working days not including weekends.

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System shows the number ‘issued’ for my new address isn’t on the system

DAY 16, I get an SMS arranging a morning appointment, enter @yes or @no. I sms my acceptance. D-Day arrives, beginning with an early morning sms addressed to Dear Customer, ‘a Telkom technician has been dispatched to install your telephone line for your order today, your continued support is appreciated.

By mid-morning I am beginning to not appreciate. By midday I am positively livid. Then I receive a mobile call from the “technician”, a person apparently contracted by the company to install my line. ‘I was at your address in Woodstock this morning’ he says, all Gung ho. “You weren’t there.” I explain that he has attempted to reinstall my line at my old address, and that I am in Muizenberg not Woodstock. “That’s the order I got. Its a totally different area he says.” I tell him that his company appears retarded. He puts down the phone and I don’t get an opportunity to question him as to why he didn’t call first thing in the morning. I suspect that he is simply happy to get paid a call-out fee without doing any work, a new loophole being exploited by outside contractors, that are also rife in the insurance industry.

Thus at the end of the day I receive yet another Dear Customer SMS, assuring me that a technician has been dispatched, no such luck, except for the lucky fellow who has now probably billed the company twice.

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DAY 17 AM, I call Telkom, am once again asked by a machine to enter the number I am calling about and also my 13 digit ID number, only to have to repeat this information verbally to the operator, before being referred to another person for assistance. I barely have time to repeat all the information once again, before my mobile phone cuts out, victim of diminishing finances.

What strikes me is how the supposed digital sophistication of the company is turning out to be a highly complicated, analog affair, as if kilometres of copper cable would need to be hauled from one suburb to the next, merely to accommodate a simply change of address. The same obfuscation is apparent in the world of plumbing where a simple hot water geyser, basically a large kettle, is turned by a trick of the imagination, into an ancient steam engine necessitating the attendance of a team of engineers in the minds of the victims of the charlatans of the profession.

Walking on the street on the way to recharge my mobile, I notice a man working on a Telkom cable box. I ask him what he is doing, apparently he is an apprentice. Soon a technician arrives in a van. I relate my tale of woe. He asks if I have the order number. He makes a note and takes down my mobile number. He says in all likelihood the other technician won’t get paid. Will he help me?

There was a time when Telkom was a purely analog company, replete with switch boards and physical switching of calls. One could call an operator to place a collect call, while the post office handled telegrams, the antecedent of email and sms. Then the Internet and the Information Age arrived. Instead of rebooting, the company carried on providing copper cable, assured of its monopoly on telephony, a mantra of the volkscapitalisme under the old National Party, a socialist status quo which continued under the ANC, only to see wireless operators and the invariable march of progress and free enterprise, beat it to the punch in terms of sheer numbers.

South Africa has a history of late adoption of technology and, aside from cellular, Telkom is no exception. After killing off Internet dialup services the company begrudgingly offered broadband in 2005, some 20 years after the technology and the Internet had caught on in the West. For two decades the only form of Internet enjoyed by South Africans was thus to be had via Internet Cafes and exorbitant cellular contracts that really take the joy away from surfing. Then Telkom shifted into wireless and also listed on the JSE, an example of a ‘hybrid SOE’ with both government and private investors, punting hybrid technology while seeking to compete with the new wave of optical networks. As I write this, there are now various offerings of fibre cable by the three big mobile operators, (Cell C, MTN, Vodacom) and all are pretty expensive in comparison to copper. So far as price is concerned, Telkom’s offering is cheaper by yards. Technology such as G-Fast has extended the lifespan of copper.

The cost of delaying the inevitability of the Information Age, and the need for competition, has been a loss of economic activity and productivity that spans a generation. For South Africans champing at the bit, it is the ANC and SOE Minister Lynne Brown who needs to take responsibility. Like the Nat Minister who famously opposed the introduction of Television, Brown has consistently punted the anti-technology, anti-Internet views of the labour-left coalition governing the country, at the same time as claiming to be rolling out services, part of the talk left, walk right approach which has dogged the party. (Who can trust the party these days?)

While mobile networks connected consumers to the new world of Android and Google Apps, it is fibre cable which holds the promise of allowing consumers to turn into providers of information, while bringing IT capacity to small businesses seeking to compete on the international stage. South Africa’s digital economy is still in its infancy, and the cost of retarding growth for purely political and ideological reasons has demonstrated that when it comes to labour rights, one may want a dash of Marx but when it comes to a flagging economy, what you really need are economic theories based in the here and now, geared to the problems of the day, not the 19th century.

DAY 17 PM Once again I get through to an operator. According to her, my order of 1 August is not on the system, but technicians ‘were at my premises yesterday’ she says, sadly the order was, surprise surprise, cancelled. She promises to follow up, to see what happened. I tell her that aside from the internal inquiry in the company (and a potential suite for damages) I still need my service to be installed at my new address as guaranteed. Since the company is an SOE, liability is restricted. I probably still have a shot at a complaint to an Ombud, but there is precious little I can do to stop the behemoth from needlessly damaging my own business. R50 airtime later and I am once again cut off by Vodacom, which appears to eschew calls to other operator service numbers. Calling service numbers is a bit like playing slot machines in R20 increments.

Never fear, the mobile counter at Checkers offers various SIM packages with free connectivity deals, there is Vodacom’s Free Facebook connect, and a Cell C free for R12 Whatsapp deal. But no free service numbers across networks. No allowance for error on anyone’s part. Then there’s the fine print, in order to purchase a new SIM one needs to RICA the SIM, and in order to comply with the legal result of the USA Patriot Act, renamed The Democracy Act in South Africa and all resulting from a suite of post-911 global Anti-Terror and Anti-Money Laundering legislation, one needs to provide paperwork such as proof of address on the off-chance I might be spying on my government, or part of an international terrorist syndicate. If adult persons such as myself find it hard going getting connected, what about pensioners and the infirm?

The 20 year one-horse cable race provided courtesy of the ANC reminds one of the joke about flogging the dead horse. A committee has been appointed to inquire into why the dead horse is not doing its job.
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DAY 18 I go into town, recharge, only to have mobile data suck my account dry. Neglected to turn it off, me bad, buy hey why is the default plan always pay, pay, pay? I get to a Telkom outlet, only to speak to a Tony Ehrenreich lookalike, replete with golfing shirt. He claims he can’t help me, since “this is a Telkom mobile outlet” and “we’re a mobile company”, but nevertheless puts me on a free line to a helpdesk. I speak to the operator, assured that my precious mobile units are not being eaten. The operator is adamant that the address where my new line is to be installed is in Woodstock not Muizenburg, I ask her if she is perhaps a foreigner? No, she says she grew up in KZN. Never been to Cape Town? No. Never studied geography? No. ‘Cape Town, its a major a metro, you should visit Muizenburg sometime, you would like it,’ I say. She duly completes yet another reorder and issues a reference number. I get home only to open my Telkom bill, to find there’s an offer of a ‘free cordless phone, our housewarming gift to you,” in fine print at the bottom of the damn thing. To receive it, I would have to apply for a relocation online. Is this all just a perverse case of reward and punishment? The corporation is punishing me for not applying for a gift, via the appropriate channels?

DAY 21 I receive yet another chummy “Dear Customer” sms, this time thanking me for ordering a telephone service for my new address. Apparently my “order” is receive attention and further communication will follow. The sms thanks me for choosing Telkom. “your service provider”

DAY 24 I am admitted to the online club of fuming Telkom users, each one with a jarring story to tell. There’s the guy whose service failed, who then upgraded to a 20mb line, expecting better service for more money, only to find he was now being billed for a service unavailable to the area he lives in, and to make matters worse, he is now blacklisted for refusing to pay up. Or the customer who got told Telkom don’t install cables in ‘black townships’ due to supposed cable theft. (whatever happened to fibre to the curb or fibre to the home?) Or the lady whose four year saga involving payments and no-service really takes the cake in terms of limited liability and refusal to abide by a government decreed service mandate, one of many election promises made by the ruling party. A litany of complaints involving failure to repair lines, even in popular metro areas. The abuse of debit orders. A culture of ineptitude and buck-passing, and abdication of responsibility. As the Peter Principle dictates, ordinary people will always rise to their own level of incompetence. See this article on Von Mises theories on bureaucracy.

DAY 25 Am considering building my own telco. Another SMS arrives, this time with a more serious tone: Dear Client, Telkom will send a representative to your premises to fulfil your request … we have scheduled an all-day appointment for Monday. That’s right, an all-day appointment productivity sink. The company also demands various documents such as a certified copy of my ID. So much for being a loyal customer. Or perhaps they’re just concerned I may have changed my identity in the past 5 years that I’ve been getting service from them. Enough time to take those hormone shots?

CONTINUED PART 2