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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Patricia de Lille wants "crackdown" on blogs

Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille wants to regulate blogging. Whether she even knows what a blog is, is another matter, but she is obviously channelling David Bullard.

Regardless, I have already discussed this in detail.

It's interesting how enticing petty tyranny is to some politicians.

The following needs to be drilled into the heads of South Africa's chattering classes, who don't quite understand the idea of free speech:

"...anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an
honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the
tyranny of the majority." US Supreme Court

Sunday, May 20, 2007

House price madness

I'm a professional who earns a reasonable salary. It's above the industry average, and I'm pretty sure it's much higher than the median salary in South Africa. I have no debt, so I would have assumed that I'm in a fairly good financial position.

So, I was bored, and went on a few bank websites, to see what type of bond I could afford. I plugged in my gross monthly income, and I was shocked to discover that I would have trouble getting a bond for anything larger than a glorified matchbox.

According to this article the average middle income house costs R911 800, and Standard Bank's median house price is R580 0001. Both of which would be out of my reach.

I could rent, but, even that is quite pricey. If a landlord wanted a yield of 10% on a house, at the median value, he would need to charge R4 800 per month in rental. 2

Who can afford to get a bond on the "median house"? According to the article, households with a joint income of R20 000 per month. How many families have that kind of income?

I've heard from "experts" that the National Credit Act could make houses more affordable by cracking down on reckless lending by financial institutions. If the prices reflect a real housing shortage, then I'm pretty sure that shortage will be filled by the huge housing developments that are mushrooming around Gauteng (and I am sure the rest of South Africa as well). Either way, prices will have to drop or stabilise until incomes catch up. Until that happens I have a great deal sympathy for the civil servants who are going on strike. The middle classes are being hit very hard currently, and it's become difficult to afford to have a roof over one's head in South Africa, low official inflation rate or not. And if lower house prices make some speculators go bankrupt, thats just too bad.

1 I don't know what they mean by "house", so that could be a hole in the argument.
2 I'm no economist, so forgive me if my terminology and figures are a bit off, but I think the general idea is correct. I also doubt that landlords are actually getting 10%.

Update: More hype about how house prices are going to go up.

Africa’s Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling - New York Times

Africa’s best universities, the grand institutions that educated a revolutionary generation of nation builders and statesmen, doctors and engineers, writers and intellectuals, are collapsing. It is partly a self-inflicted crisis of mismanagement and neglect, but it is also a result of international development policies that for decades have favored basic education over higher learning even as a population explosion propels more young people than ever toward the already strained institutions

The New York Times has a piece on the problems facing universities in the rest of Africa. South African higher education isn't in half as bad a state, but it makes for interesting reading. [via]

Sunday, May 06, 2007

In defence of anonymous blogging

Mainstream South Africa, and the Sunday Times in particular, have finally found out about the obscure pastime called blogging.

I even saw an advertisement the other day, for mixed veggies or something Stork margarine where a housewife spoke about how her blog helped her express herself.

Blogging is apparently the new hot topic in South Africa, years after the rest of the world got over the novelty.

What will the South African media discover next- Usenet?

In today's paper, Sunday Times columnist David Bullard joins in, and lays into blogging in general, and anonymous blogs in particular.

Much of his criticism is valid. Many blogs (anonymous or not) are cesspits. The amount of hate expressed on some blogs is shocking.

Of course mainstream journalists also screw things up -the Sudan Red hysteria that the Sunday Times whips up every couple of years is a good example. Mainstream journalists can be complicit in lying to the public, abusing their credibility (real or manufactured) to help drive nations to war.

But I'm not posting this to get involved the "MSM versus blogosphere" debate. I never cared much for the endless navel gazing of many bloggers. I am posting this in response to one of Bullard's remarks:

"I'm told that it’s possible to track down the author of any offensive website and perhaps that’s what the government should be doing instead of looking at legislation to gag legitimate publications. Better still, maybe it’s time the print journalists named and shamed some of the more offensive anonymous bloggers and published their physical addresses."

Now anonymous speech is a thorny topic, and while I know that mainstream journalists are threatened by blogging, encouraging the unleashing of the government's censorship pit bulls is a horrible idea (and who decides what constitutes "offensive" or "legitimate" speech anyway).

Instead of launching into a treatise into the value of anonymous free speech, I will quote the US Supreme Court, which sums up my position on this topic quite succinctly:
"...anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

Even members of the ruling ANC resort to anonymous speech when it confronts entrenched interests. The idea that anonymous speech is not somehow "legitimate" is appalling.

In any case, while it is technically possible to unmask anonymous websites, anonymous free speech has been a part of the internet from the beginning, and it will always remain so. If Bullard looked at Usenet archives of South Africa related newsgroups, from 10 years ago, or the comments sections on mainstream news websites, he would see that anonymous and offensive postings have always been a feature of online discourse in South Africa.

I have no doubt that the credibility of anonymous sources (including this blog) is lower than those where the names of the authors are known. This is how it should be, and the average person is smart enough to realize that anonymous sources should be treated with caution, and scrutinized more carefully. However, this does not justify a campaign to discourage anonymous free speech.

I hope that the government's attempts to censor the press fail, but if they do not, I am glad that the internet is available to those who wish to express themselves freely and without fear of retribution. Long may it stay that way.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Momentum Multiply: How not to run a loyalty programme

Momentum has two loyalty programmes: Save Thru Spend, available to its clients for free and Multiply, which provides additional benefits, for a monthly fee. Multiply is a status based rewards programme, similar to Discovery's Vitality.

There are two types of savings that Multipy offers: discounts and cash back into investments. It's a brilliant idea, and some of the savings on offer (steep discounts on gym memberships, movie, car hire and plane tickets) are good.

Unfortunately, the execution is poor. The Multiply website is down with alarming regularity, and has some appallingly uninformative error messages. Although the site does warn that it will have limited functionality after hours, someone doesn't seem to understand that the web is a 24x7 medium, and sites are not supposed to keep Pretoria civil servant's hours (I exaggerate, but only slightly).

Try booking a Nu Metro movie ticket (only allowed through Computicket) on a Sunday, and if Multiply is down, you are out of luck. Of course Sunday is "after hours", but tell that to my friend who wanted to book a ticket that day.

If the system is up, you have to contend with the confusing and clunky Computicket Multiply booking procedure. Did anyone do usability testing on that thing?

Want to book a plane ticket through the "low cost airline", and get a discount? You can't book on the website: you need to phone, or email(!) them. The airline's systems are probably not integrated with Multiply's. Nor, it appears are many of their other partners (Spar being a notable exception).

Points sometimes take ages to be updated.

This is a poor show. Momentum is a fairly slick company, and not all their systems are as bad as the Multiply one. But unless they fix their apparently half-baked Multiply systems fast, they will find that their loyalty programme is a liability, that reflects poorly on them.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Remembering the victim of another senseless murder

A few years ago I blogged about a Chinese immigrant who was shot in central Durban when I was nearby.

Today, another murder made the papers. The brutality and callousness of those that raped an elderly woman and then slit her throat, should cause outrage. But when I heard the story, I felt very little. There have been so many brutal murders, so much crime, that I felt a distant sort of rage, but no visceral reaction. No feeling of shock. Murder has become so much a part of our lives, and we are so conditioned to crime that very little causes outrage anymore, and that is an outrage.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

When the history of this era is written...

perhaps forensic auditors rather than historians will be in the best position to describe South Africa's "miracle" transition.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why is it fashionable to complain about crime only now?

Crime is a huge problem in South Africa and it has been been a huge problem for years. I have had family members hijacked, burgled, robbed at gunpoint (numerous times), tortured and killed, in the last 10 years.

Ordinary people have had to put up with crime for a long time, but the South African media seemed reluctant to move beyond merely reporting crime. Suddenly, though, along with big business, they seem to have found their voices, and are complaining that the government is failing in its most fundamental duty - to protect its citizens.

Is it because of the 2010 World Cup? Or is it the lame duck factor - with Mbeki's quasi-authoritarian reign coming to an end, are they less afraid of reprisals1 from the Great Denialist and his henchmen? What has emboldened the media and big business?

Note 1: Even though they were intimidated into dropping the anti-crime campaign, I doubt that FNB would have even contemplated such a campaign 2 years ago.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Durban Robots

Two years after I first mentioned it, I found that the people in charge of Durban's traffic lights still haven't figured out that they need to change the lightbulbs regularly. Idiots.