Sunday, January 27, 2008

Foreign reporting on South Africa hasn't really moved on

Earlier in the week, the Guardian, when describing the power cuts managed to take the obligatory dig at "griping whites", pointing out that black townships had no electricity in the past.

The Washington Post also got into the act, quoting people who were apparently glad to see Sandton in darkness:
On that night last month, South Africa's debilitating run of blackouts had darkened the gleaming hotels and bank towers of Alexandra's famously glitzy neighbor, Sandton. And Alexandra, once synonymous with the squalor blacks were forced to endure under white-supremacist rule, had light.

"I said, 'Wow! Reversal of roles!' " recalled Dhlomo-Mautloa, 51. "I was thinking it was wonderful."


But here in Alexandra, the pain of what the state-owned utility Eskom calls "load shedding," the temporary cutting off of power to some consumers, has been tempered by a sense that the nation's bounty -- and burdens -- are finally being experienced more evenly.

"Load shedding is the great leveler," Dhlomo-Mautloa, who also is an artist, said with a laugh. "We should call it 'load sharing' because we are sharing this inconvenience."

As much as I would like to share in the gloating that load shedding is a just retribution for Apartheid, the foolish reporters don't understand that crippling the South African economy is just as likely to punish blacks as whites. A working black person who faces a job loss because of this debacle would spit in the face of this argument. Only the deeply ignorant (or woolly headed foreign reporters) would enjoy seeing the financial heart of South Africa plunged into darkness.

And thirteen years was more than enough to increase production capacity. The government has taken the blame, mining activity has ground to a halt and the brakes are being slammed on the economy. But, it looks like some foreign reporters have not moved on and are battling to understand the dynamics of today's South Africa.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How long before South Africa's first affirmative action plane crash?

The last months of rolling blackouts ("load shedding") from Eskom, and general incompetence have made me a more cynical person about South Africa and its short to medium term future.

Something in my gut, following the Comair/Kulula Department of Labour debacle, has made me wonder how long it will 1 be before someone in the aviation industry, not suited or qualified for a position of critical responsibility, but forced into that position by a government quota, will cause a major catastrophe.

Of course, God-forbid, should such a catastrophe happen, and it is caused by an underqualifed employment equity person, there will be a cover up, and no one will dare speak the truth for fear of being branded racist.

The government could, of course, be aware of this and take a pragmatic approach to transformation to the sector, but, given the every day incompetence (in the corporate world and government) of people who are out of their depth in their employment equity positions, I doubt that they would.

I fully support the demographic transformation of the South African workforce, but, unless it is driven by pragmatic considerations, rather than blind ideology, we might find it tough to dig ourselves of the mess we create. After all the business world may be able to understand the ideology and try to implement it, but the laws of physics are far less understanding.

<1> The Air Force would be a good place to see if this will happen, as the government usually precedes the corporate sector in transformation.

Looks like we didn't have to wait that long for an example. And an SAA manager wants "non-white" individuals to be given preference for overtime and extra training.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Whose propaganda organ will the SABC become?

After reverting to its Apartheid-era role as a propaganda organ/lapdog under the Thabo Mbeki, it will be interesting to see whose side the SABC will take now: that of the government, or the ANC leadership.

Update (03 February 2008)
: It looks like the new ANC leadership wants the SABC to be independent, and move away from being a propaganda mouthpiece. We shall wait and see if they are as good as their word.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Democracy and the disinfection of tyranny

Whatever you may think of Jacob Zuma, what we are seeing in Polokwane demonstrates the power of democracy.

An arrogant denialist is being stripped of his power.

Whatever pain South Africa may feel in the next few weeks and months, at least we have been saved from Thabo Mbeki's increasingly erratic behavior1,2.

Jacob Zuma may turn out to be no better than Mbeki, or even worse, but the message that leaders can be held accountable in South Africa is powerful one, and one I hope the populace internalizes.

1 Nelson Mandela mercifully managed to hold on to his faculties for long enough to lead South Africa, but the fact is that as people age, we expect signs of senility to creep in. We should not be surprised that this happens with leaders as well.
2 Assuming he gives up easily. But I seriously doubt he will find much support if he tries any funny business.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Would a downturn in SA be an entirely bad thing?

South African businesses have had an easy time in the last few years, and it shows. Service is collapsing. In my experience, corporates are becoming increasingly incompetant and complacent.

Would a bit of a wakeup call could be in order?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Is service collapsing in South Africa?

From lazy HR executives to crappily run loyalty programs 1 and clueless call centres, a fair number of major corporates in South Africa seem to be having problems with service.

There are exceptions: Discovery and Outsurance, for example have, thus far, never given me problems, and their bright, well-informed call centre agents are always aware of what's happening.

With other companies, dealing with call centre agents is a matter of luck. A good call centre agent can quickly resolve an issue, and a bad one would have you pulling your hair out in frustration.

A lot of the time, I suppose, training issues and poor IT systems play a part, but at other times, errors can be attributed to pure laziness.

But, unfortunately, the rot in some corporates goes beyond call centres, and the same culture of laziness is infecting other areas of the organisation. South African service consumers are too docile, so I expect things to get worse before they start getting better.

1 Momentum Multiply has improved a little since my last post: they now have online travel bookings, but it's still a rather sloppy option. If you can get Vitality, rather go for that. Interestingly the two examples of good service (Outsurance and Discovery) were both, till recently also members of the FirstRand group -Discovery having beeen unbundled recently- but their customer service ethos and reliability put Momentum to shame.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Traffic cops stopping people to solicit bribes

It's bad enough when traffic police stop people for actual infractions, and then accept bribes to let them off (this is common throughout South Africa). But when one starts hearing stories about perfectly law-abiding citizens being stopped and harassed for bribes (in more isolated municipalities), one gets really worried.

I'll could be accused of "Afro-pessimism", if I point this out, but I've been told that in Nigeria, you never stop for a police officer, because he'll try solicit a bribe.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Small shops setting minimum purchase amounts on credit cards

I recently went to a small shop and the (rather rude) cashier said that I needed to make a purchase for a minimum amount, before I could use my credit card. The greedy merchant will accept cards for large amounts, but refuses to pay fees for small purchases.

I avoid carrying cash and prefer the disciplined use of a credit card for all my purchases.

Back to my story, luckily I had cash to pay for my purchase, but I decided to do some investigating.

According to the Visa website:

Visa has certain regulations that all merchants that accept Visa cards must follow. One of those rules is that Visa merchants are not permitted to establish minimum transaction amounts, even on sale items. However, in some countries surcharging is legal and the local legislation will take precedence over Visa's regulations.

The remedy, according to the Visa website:
If you run into a problem with a merchant, please notify your Visa card-issuing bank. Visa member banks have access to the appropriate Visa rules and regulations as well as to the Notification of Customer Complaint forms which should be used by the bank to document and file merchant complaints.

Unfortunately, based on my experience, SA banks don't seem capable of dealing with this problem (or it is legal here). Either way, since Visa doesn't allow me to complain directly, I am at a dead end.

This sort of thing is typical of small shops who whine about being squeezed by big chain stores, but also try to screw their customers (and, I suspect, the taxman) at every opportunity. Many of these small timers have no concept of customer service, and deserve to be obliterated.

Update. Help from an expert: . Too bad my bank, after shunting me from pillar to post, eventually told me merchants were allowed to set minimum purchases. SA banks prove as incompetent at ever.
Update 2. Another example of this from a branch of a franchise takeaway.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ben Schoeman congestion: whose fault?

Commuters who have to endure the peak-hour congestion on the Ben Schoeman highway between the Brakfontein and Buccleuch interchanges on the N1, or have to take another route between Pretoria and Johannesburg would be forgiven for cursing the traffic authorities.

I think the transport authorities were slow in recognizing and reacting to the problem (and their reaction was perhaps inappropriate - let's see how the Gautrain works out).

The transport authorities also don't react quickly enough in daily traffic. Broken down trucks at peak times often stay stuck for hours, causing huge back-ups, with the authorities being either unable, or unwilling to move them.

But I don't think that the transport authorities are exclusively to blame:
  • It seems like the south-bound lanes are congested in the mornings, and the north-bound lanes in the evenings. A lot of skilled workers are forced to commute from Pretoria and Centurion to Johannesburg because of the dearth of well-paying job opportunities in the Tshwane Metropolitan area. For now a lot of blame has to be apportioned to the municipality (which had a lot of its priorities wrong), and to the commuters themselves, who are perhaps symptomatic of a government-centric, non-entrepreneurial Pretoria mindset. The commercial sector in Centurion seems to be growing, so perhaps things will improve in a few years.
  • Anyone who has driven along the R55 will see that there are massive developments coming up, from Woodmead to Centurion. Who gives zoning permission for these developments in areas where the road network is inadequate? Do the speculators/developers pay rezoning levies? Are the rezoning levies used to improve the road networks? Another example of this is the Samrand area in Centurion, which has one of the most congested interchanges on the Ben Schoeman in the mornings that brings traffic on the freeway to a grinding halt, and the immediate area isn't even heavily developed yet (Samrand has an interesting history). Presumably, a lot of people using the interchange, and clogging the highway up, come from developments in the south of Centurion, which have mushroomed in the last few years.
  • Flexitime (or "semi-flexitime"), which allows individual workers to stagger their working hours is great for individual commuters and it probably reduces peak traffic volumes, but it probably leads to by increasing the number of single-occupant vehicles, since everyone starts and ends at different times. Fully flexible working hours and telecommuting are probably the way of the future, but I don't expect many South African companies to adopt these methods anytime soon (I find South Africa to be rather conservative and uninnovative, but that's another story).
While new lanes should perhaps be added to the Ben Schoeman highway and other measures introduced to cope with existing demand, the government cannot be expected to add new lanes to the highway forever.

Unless zoning laws are enforced, and urban sprawl is brought under control, along with more commercial development in Centurion and Pretoria, I don't see Gauteng's north-south traffic problems ending anytime soon.

Gapminder: Demographic data visualisations

This has been around for a few months, but if you haven't played with it yet, it's worth a look:

Gapminder from Google.

It allows you to visualize various demographic measures. South Africa doesn't do too badly, except on life expectancy, where, like other Southern African countries, the life expectancy has plunged in recent years. To my untrained eye, South Africa's reduced life expectancy doesn't seem to be correlated with economic growth or child mortality, but it may be correlated with per capita income.

Productivity per capita versus life expectancy might also be a revealing measure, but I am not an economist, so I can't think of any way of measuring productivity, or defining it.

Gapminder is a fascinating tool.

If, like me, Gapminder got you interested in data visualization check out the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods.