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Friday, November 21, 2008

Tel One runs out of diesel to power the phones

This really belongs under lifestyle - only in Zimbabwe could this happen!

November 21, 2008 - The Zimbabwe Times
By Sibangani Sibanda
SOMETIMES it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the situation in Zimbabwe.
Just when we think that we have seen it all, Zimbabwe has a way of showing us something new. The government’s apparent indifference to the plight of the many who have to go for days at a time without food, or the pupils who have had no teachers for months, or even the deaths that have occurred as a result of a preventable cholera epidemic are well documented indications of a government that has lost all authority and has no interest in serving the people it claims to represent.
Yet even in this gloom, we sometimes get some unintended comic relief.
Our telephone system, chronically unreliable at the best of times, has got worse! Telephones inexplicably stop working, and just as inexplicably, start working again. In the last two weeks or so, my office has had no telephone service in the mornings at all, but has sometimes had service in the afternoons, which makes getting any work done at all, something of a miracle.
The situation, it turns out, covers the whole country and many Zimbabweans have simply assumed that as we have had “load shedding” for electric power for some time, we now have load shedding for telephones!
In desperation, I visited the offices of Tel One, the sole fixed line telephone service provider in the country. No, they told me, it is not load shedding, but it may as well be.
Telephone exchanges, they explained, work on electricity - I must admit that this had never occurred to me! As such, every time we get power outages at the exchange as a result of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA)’s load shedding, telephones also go off. Like any good service provider would do (although I use the term “good” advisedly in the case of Tel One), Tel One bought themselves diesel-run generators to ensure that their beleaguered customers did not lose telephones every time there was a power cut.
On their part, government, through the multi-faceted, multi-talented Reserve Bank governor, Gideon Gono, undertook to supply Tel One with cheap, very cheap diesel. Anybody who has been following the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of Zimbabwe will know that there is an innovative accounting system in government where goods are sold to the end user at less than the cost of producing or procuring those goods. These goods thus remain on the market until such time as they can no longer be replaced because money has this bad habit of running out when more of it is going out than coming in.
Come to think of it, most commodities have this bad habit.
Anyway, the cheap diesel is no longer available, or rather, as the Tel One officials put it, there have been no deliveries for nearly two months, which is as good an indication as any, that it is no longer available. So now when ZESA sheds its load, telephones go off, and when ZESA “comes back”, the telephones also “come back”! There is, of course, other diesel available on the market at market prices, but I forgot to ask the officials why Tel One does not buy this to keep their customers happy. It may have something to do with the expectation of government that Tel One sells its services using the aforementioned innovative accounting system of government!
It may be that I live in a society where humor is at something of a premium, but I found this whole episode amusing – in an irritating sort of way. Like how I found laughter in trying to withdraw money from the bank to go and bury my late aunt last week.
Our Mr. Gono has decided that we can only withdraw Z$ 500 000.00 per day, which is not enough to buy a loaf of bread. However, being a passive, law-abiding citizenry, we dutifully go to the bank and withdraw our daily (less-than-a-loaf-of) bread. Should we require money for such emergencies as funerals, we make applications to the Reserve Bank, with all necessary proofs of our bereavement attached. The Reserve Bank may take a few days (or a few weeks) to respond – which may mean a lengthy funeral wake.
When they finally respond, having been convinced that the person you say is dead is, indeed, dead, the costs of burial will have gone up substantially. This may mean a re-application. In any case, the bank may not have the physical cash to give you, and as you have 48 hours within which to withdraw the money, they may ask you to re-apply after the expiry of your withdrawal window!
Despite my bereavement, I left the bank laughing uncontrollably.

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