Life without the lights on

Jeremy Gordin writes on ordinary life in a country in the process of falling apart

Here’s a selection of some of the questions that occurred to me earlier today:

What is one to make of the convincing argument made by Koos Malan, professor emeritus of constitutional law at Tukkies, that all three pillars of the South African unitary state are disintegrating?

Why would someone(s) try to poison outgoing Eskom CEO André de Ruyter? This question leads in turn to others: if cyanide were indeed placed in his coffee cup, surely it would not be too hard for any half-competent detective to ascertain pretty quickly exactly what happened and who was responsible? So why has there been no apparent progress in the investigation if there has been one?

Or why has the Gommagomma king, President Cyril Ramaphosa, placed Eskom in the grasping hands of the department of Energy, bailiwick of the notorious Samson ‘the tiger’ Gwede Mantashe, what does minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan say about this, and why have most people not even noticed? 

Or, notwithstanding limited available working time on my desktop (loadshedding 6 is back with a vengeance), ought I be trying to compose an open letter, based roughly on Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which I congratulate the so-called RET (radical economic transformation) forces who/which, despite negative publicity and apparent setbacks, have easily achieved their goals?

For, as a dear friend remarked telephonically and irascibly to me this morning, ‘the country is, without a doubt, well and truly f----d’. 

But, given that I’m feeling even more unmoored than usual from the so-called news cycle, and that it’s been the festive season, tra-la-la, and I’ve been immersed not in Das Kapital but in a new translation of Der Blechtrommel and an old copy of Gravity's Rainbow, well, I thought that today I’d rather focus on my own little slice of life. (I’d rather be focusing on a little slice of fresh carrot cake, but anyway ...)

Sometimes I feel guilty that my gorgeous wife (who did most of the work) and I ‘had’ our offspring so ‘late’ in life. This is because 25 years ago or so, I was wont to spend all my money on Havana cigars, French cognac, Woolies tee-shirts, books about medieval philosophy, cheeseburgers, caffè lattes, and other fripperies – instead of putting aside funds for my offspring.

In short, during the last 10 years or so, my gorgeous daughter, the last-born, now about 24 years old, has not been as well taken care of financially as she (and even I) would have liked.

This being the case, I might perhaps have over-compensated here and there and, for example, have for a number of years been footing the bill for the little Marxist dear’s expensive mobile phone contract – which, as you might know, is an indispensable accoutrement for today’s young folk.

Actually, whatever our age or stage, it has, alas, become requisite if not essential. Throw away your smart phone, dear reader – and see how you cope with accessing your bank account or manage sans all the info you’ve loaded onto it, especially those particularly important phone numbers.

Yup – that handlanger of rampant western capitalism, Steve Jobs, grabbed us by the short and curlies and now we’re all well and truly shtupped. Even if he was a Canadian, Marshall McLuhan knew what he was talking about.

Anyway, about three months ago, while working in Cape Town as a runner for a production house shooting a commercial – being a ‘runner’ means you run around buying props and suchlike (what else would you do with a history honours degree?) – my daughter was consulting her phone for directions. She was peering at her phone near an informal settlement – and one of the suffering ‘working’ classes ripped it from her hands. DA or no DA, these things can and do happen, even in the Cape.

Then, as you might know, the fun begins. The phone and contract owner (i.e., me) wants to have the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card ‘stopped’ and the instrument itself ‘blacklisted’. But try to do this quickly and cleanly with MTN and you’ll be left whistling Thuma Mina.

Incidentally, I see that MTN is said ‘to be a South African multinational mobile telecommunications company … and that, as of December 2020, it recorded [sic] 280 million subscribers, making it the 8th largest mobile network operator in the world, and the largest in Africa’. Whether this is still current info, I don’t know – and whether other mobile companies are just as bad (or worse), I also don’t know. But it’s MTN with which I’ve had to deal, so it’s MTN about whom I’m writing.

Besides the so-called customer service agent being monumentally bored – and that’s after I managed to find one, which took some time – I was interrogated as if I’d stolen the phone, and in particular I was asked for a certain number (I’ve forgotten what it’s called) that apparently appears on the original box of any instrument. The instrument was purchased some five or six years ago – so where the hell the box is, I certainly didn’t know. What’s more, MTN actually knew this number – it was on ‘my’ records – but the agent wouldn’t tell me lest I was a fraudster. Catch-22, is it?

Eventually I got the SIM cancelled, etc., but had to get an increase in my blood pressure medication.

Then early yesterday – three months later – my gorgeous daughter and I set out to pay off what was still owing on the contract – if you think MTN halts the contract when the Sim is not being used, think again – and to get what’s called a ‘sim swop’ – so that my daughter could retain her previous number on a new card. Why not do it online? Nah, this would take 48 hours, and my daughter needs to go back to Cape Town quite soon, so had to go to one of the stores. Luckily, I phoned MTN Rosebank beforehand because it turned out it had no Sims in stock. But apparently MTN in The Zone did.

Okay. Well, I thought I’d sommer head north to Zoo Lake, sweep around one-eighth of its south-west corner, and continue on Dorset Rd, Parkwood, a road redolent with ‘history’ for me. The former Wits professor of African government and law, Julius Lewin, used to live there – and would, under the name ‘John Dorset’, dispatch to my family in Brakpan certain scandalous publications, such as, say, The Early life of Moshoeshoe. Bet he had the security branch rockin’ and rollin’. And so on [i].

But history or no history, Dorset Rd is now a nightmare. It’s one long string of potholes – one of the many small lake districts of Parkwood. No matter, I thought; I’ll swing up Chester – close to where the great David Bullard once lived – and then into Bolton and I’ll be at The Zone in no time.

Been to Bolton Road lately? Don’t bother unless if you own a four-wheel-drive. Yeah, I know, the councilors in that area are DA ones who’d love to have the roads repaired – but apparently there ain’t no money available, especially as the city’s electricity and water ‘infrastructures’ are about as healthy as my pancreas.

We made it to The Zone. MTN took my money with alacrity. Then came the doing of a sim swop – i.e. getting a new sim card on which my daughter’s original number would be. Everyone was immensely helpful – but no one could do it. Why? Well, head office had to ‘free’ the number – which, as you’ll recall, had been blocked by me – and head office was either having ‘systems problems’ or it had too many queries to deal with there and then.

Why weren’t the staff in the store allowed to free the number? The chances of fraud are much too high, so a number of functions can no longer be carried out by the store personnel. Well, yeah, mentioned my daughter, but the local chances of theft are pretty high too …

Talking of which, everyone was, as I said, pretty helpful. But there’s a new kind of Seffrican employee – don’t know if you’ve noticed – young, seems to speak and understand English quite well, apologizes profusely at every opportunity, but doesn’t ever quite hear what you say. ‘Got to have this by tomorrow, please; my daughter’s flying to Cape Town.’ ‘Yes, I apologize’ … and so on. I call this the ‘Truth Commission’ response.

Or there’s the ANC response: ‘I will look into the matter, I’m doing what I can, and I promise I’ll phone you later, but you see ....’ and so forth. Must have been a little bit like this – albeit, I concede, with much less politeness – dealing with clerks at the dompasse offices. Like whacking your head against a concrete wall. What have we taught our children?

Well, it’s now about 30 hours later – the Sim swap has not happened, my phone calls are not being answered – and I haven’t been able to write this column at home because today electricity was non-est from 14h00 to 18h00.

Why I’ve told you all this boring stuff – stuff you probably know much more about than I?

I suppose I was just thinking that whether it’s electricity, roads, water, or cell phones, whether it’s public sector or private sector, whether people do or don’t want to assist (and some might genuinely want to do so), whether the issues are macro or micro, the country is, without a doubt, well and truly f-----d. Right up the macgoolagong. Ain’t it?


[i] Also, a former dear girlfriend of mine used to live there – or her family did. No names, no pack drill. Her dad didn’t like me; in retrospect I don’t blame him. Third, Richard McNeil, one of the unsung heroes of The Daily Sun used to live there – he taught Deon du Plessis and the rest of us about tabloid layout. Moreover, he discovered that in his very house, Nelson R Mandela had once held a secret interview with the BBC (I think it was), sometime prior to August 1962. (McNeil was last heard of pottering around in Simonstown.) Finally, Stephen Haw, known affectionately to me as Lord Haw Haw, formerly editor of the daily Times, used to live in Dorset Road too – for all I know, he still does.