The story I’m about to tell is one of those typical “This is Africa” anecdotes that I’ve so come to miss over the years. It’s a story of thievery and deceit, but it somehow warms your heart nonetheless, because one can practically see the bashful smiles all around. It took place about six years ago – I haven’t told it until now because at the time my husband preferred that I didn’t spill any “company secrets” about his employer.
We had moved to South Africa for the multi-national company he was with at the time. He was put in charge of a project subcontracted by South Africa’s utility, Eskom, to build the forever-behind-schedule Kusile and Medupi power plants. (Both plants have finally been brought online, about four years late.)
Managing the South African operations was a constant challenge for Noisette. He had a lot more employees than ever before, but beyond their sheer numbers, they were also not like anyone he’d managed before. Perhaps this is a charitable way to put it: They showed ingenuity and ambition mainly when it came to improving their own lot, not so much the company’s.
This is the ingenuity they came up with in this particular instance. Noisette, ever environmentally conscious, had arranged a recycling service for the office’s used paper. The fee schedule was based on weight or some other variable – x amount of old paper removed meant it cost x * y rate of ZAR per kg of paper.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure who got paid what. Did the recycling company collect a fee based on how much they hauled away? Or did a middle man come to pick it up for free, able to resell it at one of Johannesburg’s recycling buy-back centres?
It doesn’t matter. Someone in the office figured out that the paper did not have to, in fact, be used, before being recycled and fetch a profit. Brand-new sheets of paper out of the box worked just as well, and there was a lot more of that available. One just had to take it out of the boxes stacked in the copy room, carry it over to the recycling bins, and voila, here was an end product with potential value – either by getting a kickback from the recycling firm, or in terms of a profit split with whoever resold it at the buy-back centre.
Soon, the copy room became the hub for this profitable venture. Pristine white sheafs of paper would arrive in big stacks, which would almost immediately be dumped into the recycling bins to be carried away for ever higher profits. Noisette only found out about it months later when by chance he saw this operation carried out, and by connecting what he had seen with the ever rising costs of their office supplies.
As it was, this was just a minor bump on his balance sheet. He had bigger problems to contend with – entire steel girders mysteriously disappearing in the dead of night, entire warehouses dwindling down to mere shells of what was supposedly stocked in them. Whether this is a sad remnant of the old Apartheid days, an inbred desire to sabotage the system at all costs that even this new generation of workers has not quite overcome, or whether it is simply a symptom of a vastly unequal society where some resort to stealing to get by, is not quite clear to me. In fact, with unemployment as high as it is in South Africa, one would think that you’d try hard as an employee not to lose your job and your livelihood by stealing from your employer. Then again, if everyone does it, it’s perhaps easy enough to get away with it.
The ongoing joke in our neighborhood, Dainfern Valley, was that one day the rampant theft of coveted aluminum plates off the gleaming “shitpipe” that spanned the valley in a graceful arc would lead to its contents literally raining down all over its wealthy residents. It never came to pass, at least not while we lived there, but the looming threat was always in the backs of our minds. Thievery is a constant companion to life in South Africa, but as I’ve said before, it somehow manages to be of a more charming kind as elsewhere, whether that’s fair or not. Whenever I took in my car for service, I cheerfully stripped glove compartments and cupholders of any valuables, down to the water bottle, because you could be sure none of it would be there when you’d get it back. Whatever coins you left in your middle console would be taken, almost like a tip, by whoever was repairing or detailing your car. This was just one of the things you did, without much thought or resentment, just like you never quite expected any packages someone sent you from overseas through the postal service to actually arrive.
So… If you are new to South Africa and in charge of managing an office there, you might be well advised to check what’s going on in your copy room.