They must have sensed that there has been a lull on Joburg Expat with regards to utility service providers and their propensity to screw me over. I mean, it’s been six whole weeks since my last trouble with Telkom. And over two months since the latest episode of the Eskom affair. An eternity, practically.
Maybe they thought that I wasn’t being fair. Not giving enough equal coverage to everybody and ignoring the poor City of Joburg.
Or maybe they just did it out of pure spite, as they are wont to do.
I’m talking about the gods of South African Bureaucracy, of course.
Because guess what just fluttered – literally – through my front gate: A “Pre-Termination Notice” from the City of Joburg (“a world class African city” helpfully stated under the letterhead), advising me that our account was R15,780 in arrears and that our water would be turned off within two weeks if it wasn’t paid.
You might not believe this, but in my previous life I never had to deal with such situations. Utilities were things that were just there when we moved into a new house, or perhaps I had to schedule the Time Warner Cable guy once for about a half an hour after moving to a new city, and that was it – never heard from any of them again, and everything worked like a charm. And had said notice fluttered into my mailbox in my previous life (where about $2,000 would also have caught my attention, trust me), I would have just made a mental note to call them on Monday. I would have called them on Monday, pointed out their mistake, they would have looked in their system, they would have found the mistake and apologized to me, and they would have sent me an email confirming the revision of their system to put things right again.
But I’ve lived here in South Africa for two years, and my previous life is receding quickly in the distance, or dissolving like some kind of mirage, at least where customer service is concerned. I can barely remember that there was once a time where I went years without jotting down a single reference number. So if above notice appearing on my doorstep made me a tad apprehensive, you know it’s because I’ve spent months of our expat assignment on the phone with Eskom, trying to resolve a billing issue. But apparently that is nothing compared with the City of Joburg, where I’ve heard horror stories of people grudgingly paying hundreds of thousands of rands in interest charges for a fictitious water meter because all pleas to reason failed and the interest kept compounding, or the water was turned off, or most likely both at the same time.
If this wasn’t enough reason to panic, I then thought of my recent discovery of the water meter, which judging from the pile of sand it was buried under had not been read in the last two years. So what if they had just come to do the first actual reading and discovered we used a ton more water than billed? What if they actually had good cause to slap us with this bill?
All of this was swirling through my head as come Monday morning I gathered documents to make my case with the City of Joburg. The phone call, of course, yielded nothing. “You’ll have to appear in person,” was the only answer I could get out of them, and “bring your termination notice and your latest bill.” I threw in our lease agreement and my passport for good measure, because those are the things they always want from you here in South Africa, and of course my Kindle because it is a cardinal sin to be without one when there might be waiting involved, and set out for my first date with the City of Joburg. Or actually, not quite, if you’ll remember my dustbin saga from our early days.
So by noon Monday I was sitting in the City of Joburg’s Sandton office and nothing went according to plan. I had braced myself for a good fight, perhaps involving some karate kicks or at the least some very loud shouting, but nothing of the sort was necessary.
I had barely cracked open my Kindle when I was politely called up to the counter. There, the clerk swiveled his computer screen so I could see, and patiently (and rather cheerily, I must say) showed me all past bills to figure out when this charge might have been added. It turns out it is a charge for back property taxes, which apparently for one reason or another weren’t levied for over two years. The termination notice which had caused me so much anxiety was a mistake, one that the service rep profusely apologized for, and while the huge bill was real, it didn’t bother me in the least bit.
Because property taxes, of course, squarely belong in the realm of home ownership. The one thing we are not saddled with here in South Africa. I was in and out of that office in less than ten minutes, feeling as carefree as a college student on the way to Fort Lauderdale, armed with a bill to forward to our landlord and happy in the smug knowledge that for once I could let somebody else deal with this mess. Provided they pay, of course, because it’s still MY water being turned off if they don’t.
It’s almost disappointing that this didn’t turn into more of a story, from a blogging perspective. Although I should say that I didn’t get off completely without paying something that day. R150, to be precise.
But that’s a story for another blog post.