A large neon digital counter in the bustling walkways of Oliver Tambo International Airport at Johannesburg reminds visitors that the FIFA World Cup 2010 is just less than four hundred days away. Even as one floatsdown M1 freeway towards the misty central business district [CBD], scores of billboards scream the message of South Africa’s readiness to host the world’s most expensive soccer show piece. But that is only as far as the promise lasts –the advertising billboards.
On the ground, the situation reeks with service paralysis and bureaucratic stupor. From the shiny shopping malls of Northgate in the posh Western Rand to the choking stench of Indian shops along President Street in the CBD, one is struck with a sense of diabolic premonition that black South Africans, as a people, have neither the will, skill, capacity or sense of urgency to handle customers to the soccer jamboree.
There is clear evidence that where service is generally above average, especially in restaurants, most employees are from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is impossible for a Zimbabwean ‘tourist’ to speak in Ndebele or Shona in an eating house without some waiter responding: “Oh, so you’re ALSO from home!” If therefore it is a myth that South Africans prefer post-work ‘celebration’ to work itself, then the onus is on them to bust this stereotype. Meanwhile, facts speak for themselves. Of all the shops that I visited towards the end of May 2009, there is not a single occasion, except perhaps in the CBD Asian shops, that a shop assistant volunteered to assist me or at least exhibited an acute sense of keen product knowledge. The standard treatment is applied with irritating monotony: they look up from whatever they are doing – toying around at the till, flirting at some corner or chatting to friends – with near contempt.
“In that case, we DON’T have it!”
When you eventually give up on finding what you seek, you approach them and they will throw a hand wildly: “Have you tried behind THAT shelf?” If you say you did, the answer is short, curt and precise: “In that case, we DON’T have it!” If you are endowed with patience like me [I have to, I’m Zimbabwean, remember!], you do another lap of honour and find a close substitute. By the time he or she serves you at the counter –thank God for the bar code technology – a passenger flying to Hong Kong from Johannesburg will be halfway round the world!
Let me place three examples in the courtyard of public judgment. I was looking for a simple gadget – and so I thought – to connect a television decoder to my laptop. My search started at a shopping centre in Melville, up through to Cresta, Rosebank and eventually the CBD. The best service that I got was from a Chinese computer geek and an Indian flea market operator who advised me to implant a TV card in my computer or simply connect an external tuner through a USB port. They also urged me to purchase an analog unit since they were very sure most satellite receiving in this region is not yet digital. Most black shopping assistants said they did not even think that laptops are TV-compatible! Others, on mentioning the word TV, would simply request me to first produce a South African TV license.
My search for another simple gadget – a small ball-like amplifiable speaker that is connected externally to a laptop for corporate presentations – proved that black South African shop assistants require spending more training on product knowledge than sampling new Kwaito music! Most specialised computer shop assistants had NEVER heard of the detachable speaker. On another occasion, a lady friend I dragged out of a Rosebank office complex to help me seek lip gloss for my wife spent almost twenty minutes sifting through ‘Eurocentric colours’ without so much as getting a glance from cosmetics salesladies nearby. We eventually glided out with nothing.
I took this debate about how South Africans take their sales jobs to a human capital expert working for a development agency, a Zimbabwean of ‘real’ South African origins working in Sandston City. His observation was that the labour laws of that country are so protective of workers, so much that it is almost impossible to fire lazy employees. Moreover, Zimbabweans are at the bottom of the professional ‘caste system’, thus the fear of expulsion puts them at a disadvantage. As a result, my debates with waiters and shop assistants from the troubled country revealed a stunning level of slave labour mentality, a sense of hopelessness and self-resignation. I shudder to think what human resource systems are in place to protect foreign workers in mines and farms in South Africa, far from the glare of public human rights scrutiny.
Therefore as South Africa prepares to host millionaire ball players and crazed soccer fans, straightening freeways, tunneling underground trains and changing bed linen in hotels may not be sufficient to appease soccer tourists. We demand that attitudes and behaviours in shops, supermarkets and restaurants shift towards a culture of customer supremacy rather than the currently dominant crude complacency.
Rejoice Ngwenya is President of Zimbabwe’s Coalition for Liberal Market Solutions and an associate of African Liberty.