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Calling for a break from apathy

It is a pity that the National Consumer Commission’s lines went down and its emails started bouncing. We need it to be fully functional. We have a range of rip-off artists out there that dominate South Africa’s corporate skyline, from little players to big-name brands.

The fact that the commission has not been able to take calls is a major setback for all the hard work that went into convincing South Africans that they should protect their rights as consumers. I know the general view is that we are quite a voluble bunch. The problem is that many middle-class South Africans are good whinge, but not good activists. We have become blasé about being treated badly; we just find another service provider, pay up and move on.

When I heard that the commission’s lines had gone down I wanted to retire to a dark room for several days. Was this another case of a Rolls Royce piece of legislation — the Consumer Protection Act — being left whistling in the wind because we could not get a skedonk of an institution to back it up? We are good at this. A beautiful Constitution, some beautiful Bills, all as dry and dead as the ink on their pages because we cannot build the institutional capacity to make them real. For the middle class it is inconvenient; for poor people it can be a matter of life and death.

The commission, with or without functioning telephones and emails, was starting to do a good job. Its September progress report is interesting and heartening. It has South African Airways in its sights. Good. SAA has become fat and lazy and does not give a damn about looking after customers because it knows it will be bailed out with taxpayers’ money the next time it reports a huge loss.

A few weeks ago I booked a ticket (R2 500 for a round trip) to attend a funeral in East London. The day before I was due to fly my daughter was admitted to hospital for emergency surgery in Cape Town. Do you think I could redirect the flight? Not on your life. SAA was going to charge me R2 700 for the privilege on top of the price I had paid for the original ticket.

The pain of the cost was bad enough. But the attitude of SAA’s staff was worse. Admittedly I was stressed. Who would not be? But it took a 40-minute telephone call and two visits to the SAA desk at OR Tambo airport to establish the simple fact that it was going to cost me more than the original ticket to fly to another destination. I ended up flying with another airline. I can use the SAA ticket to fly to East London, but that would require having another reason to go there, which I don’t.

The commission also has its eye on Telkom. As a service provider Telkom is useless beyond repair. I have an ADSL line that has not worked for two months. I have a landline that has not worked for two years since the ADSL line was put in. I have given up calling. I have enough SMSes confirming that my complaint has been logged and someone will attend to it — and follow-up SMSes to tell me the problem has been solved — to produce a short novel. And the messages always end with “please do not reply to this SMS” — the only useful piece of advice they have given me. Incidentally, I am sure they have deliberately slowed down the voice message of the man who answers the ADSL complaints line. In recent months he has begun to sound somnolent. Maybe the strategy is to put complainants to sleep or get them so depressed they go away and slit their wrists.

A few weeks ago a technician called me to check whether everything was okay. No, I said, it is not. He sounded genuinely surprised that my landline had not worked for two years and that the ADSL line had been on the blink for two months. He said he would come the next day, but he never pitched. Another technician called last Monday to inquire whether I had a problem with my ADSL line. Yes, I said, I do. He too was surprised to hear the problem had been going on for a while. He promised to come round. I am not holding my breath. If the technician does not pitch I think I will throw in the towel. I cannot bear the thought of calling the helpline again. The man with the “please-go-away-and-kill-yourself” voice will answer and I do not think I can handle it.

These experiences have made me dig deep into my personal prejudices. I used to hold strong views against privatisation. Margaret Thatcher mastered the art of selling state assets. For a period after she had disposed of everything she could lay her hands on I believed that the sale of state assets was a conspiracy by running-dog capitalists to rip off ordinary people. All the proof we needed was in the disaster that became British Rail after it was flogged to the private sector.

The fire sale of state-owned assets in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed confirmed this prejudice. The sale of oil, gas and everything that moved by the Russian government amounted to little less than larceny on a grand scale. Even writers like the Financial Times‘ Martin Wolf, a great proponent of privatisation when it was in vogue, eventually viewed privatisation as practiced in Russia in the early and mid-1990s as bad for everyone.

But my experiences as a customer have turned me into a militant sell-off-the-family-jewels champion. There are certain things at which the government is just not very good. Running an airline is one of them. Running a telecommunications company is another. It is not as though these assets are being used to advance an agenda that helps deal with South Africa’s unforgiveable and unsustainable inequality, or with the country’s high levels of poverty. They are just badly run companies protected from going the way all badly run companies should go by a state that keeps bailing them out with taxpayers’ money that could be put to better use.

I am aware that it is not only state-owned enterprises that behave badly towards their customers. Plenty of privately owned companies do too. The commission’s list of complaints attests to this. But there is just something particularly galling about the fact that I am treated badly by a company that is in business on the back of my taxes.

I hope the commission gets its phones and emails working and its emails going. If it is relying on Telkom I am not hopeful. Once the lines are working and they find enough skilled people to man the phones and read the emails, we should take advantage of the fact that there is someone out there fighting our corner. If we do not, we will pay an increasingly heavy price for our apathy.

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