Yes, I have an affair. It started shortly after moving to South Africa. It wasn’t all that secret, to be honest, but it was very time consuming. I mostly conducted it over the phone, except for one not-so-clandestine encounter. Then I thought I ended it last July. 190 long days of not talking to him. But now I’ve taken up with him again.
Richard, you see, works in the billing department at Eskom (if you’re a new reader: That’s the South African power company, and I’ve blogged A LOT about them). If you’re a longtime reader, I know you’ve just been dying to hear more on this subject. You might remember that I had put away my Eskom file for good sometime last year, closing a chapter on this particular long-running and blogging-material-rich topic. Or so it seemed, until a few weeks ago. Once a month I had faithfully been crawling under the hood of our meter down by the road and texting the correct reading to Eskom, whose people then applied that reading to our bill and all was well. I was happy because the bill was reasonable, and they were happy because they didn’t actually have to send anyone to read the meter. The fact that I don’t find it strange to be doing my own meter readings just goes to show that we’re no longer new to South Africa.
Except this system only works if they read my SMSs correctly. Which they didn’t the last month. I found myself staring at the bill and wondering how on Earth it could be over ten thousand rand. Well, upon close examination, I can tell you exactly how. The previous month’s reading was 99 thousand kwh, and this month’s reading was 102 thousand kwh. Or 102,000 if you spell it out. But the person reading my SMS left off the last digit and recorded 10,200. No problem you might think, wouldn’t it be a GOOD thing to have a lower meter reading than the actual one? In theory yes, but their system is actually kind of clever. It automatically assumes that you’ve gone over 100,000, so the 10,200 was transformed into 110,200. Which is a lot more than 102,000.
As you can imagine, trying to explain THAT to the Eskom customer service rep makes for some good comedy.Three new reference numbers and many days of fruitless waiting for the promised callback later, I knew it was time to call Richard again.
He picked up on the first ring. I gave him my account number and that’s when he greeted me by name. It was just like old times.
“Did we ever sort out your problem with the reconnection fee?” was his first question.
I just about fell off my chair. It’s as if I’m his only customer and there aren’t a bazillion other people calling in and yelling at him for messing up their bill. How could he possibly remember? Except if he’s so good at THAT, why can’t he just go into the damn system, add a digit, and be done?
But I think Richard didn’t get hired to fix bills. He was hired to soothe people and make them feel as if there are no problems in this world. He is SO friendly, it’s uncanny. You cannot possibly yell at such a man. When you hang up, you are so completely at ease you’ve forgotten entirely what you got so upset about. Then your anger starts building up again over the next few days, because of course nothing has happened, so you call Richard again, and he immediately calms you down. It’s like long-distance hypnosis. I wonder if he gives any massages.
We went on to chat some more. He recommended that I always call in my meter readings in the future, instead of sending an SMS, and he made sure I wrote down the number for his new direct line, so I can reach him day and night. I think he really does have a special place for me in his heart.
So I made a date with him for the next morning to chat more. And since then, our affair has been in full swing again, with daily phone calls, sometimes three times in one day. Because I now schedule the next one right after I hang up. You know what he revealed to me on one of those calls? He doesn’t actually work in the billing department! My world came crushing down. That actually explained a lot. He told me all about how he has to go and speak with the woman actually working in the billing department, and then get back to me. Except she is always out for lunch or otherwise inconvenienced.
Anyway, the moral of a long story and another tip for prospective expats: Do your own meter readings, but call them in instead of sending an SMS. Or, even better, make “YOU deal with Eskom” a central part of your lease agreement. You just might miss out on a lovely over-the-phone affair with Richard.
By the way, I’ll tell you Richard’s real name for R100, and his direct phone number – the one where you don’t have to go through any voice mail system or cumbersome reference numbers – for another R200.
Maybe one lucrative way to make money off this blog.