A trail of plastic and paper

28 10 2012

I have issues with plastic bags that are given out with just about every purchase in Zimbabwe (supermarkets, to their everlasting credit, are the exception to this statement – they charge for theirs). Harare is no longer the clean city that it was in the ’80s and early ’90s and I drive past a  rubbish tip on the way home from town; plastic bags litter the fences, trees and the farm fields surrounding it. It is especially bad when the wind is south-east and when it rains there is a distinct vomit-like smell from the dump. So when the teller at the bank told me that they were no longer accepting personal withdraws on paper slips from the beginning of next year I did a silent mental cheer. Only debit cards will be allowed. I suspect this has more to do with reducing their workload than saving the environment, but it’s a start.

The attitude at the local hardware store that afternoon was a little different.

“I don’t want a plastic bag thank you”.

“Are you sure?” the shop assistant asked dubiously. EVERYBODY takes plastic bags if they are GIVEN them.

“Yes, I am quite sure” I insisted.

“Will you be able to get your stuff to the car?” he persisted. The car was right outside the shop door so I stood my ground.

The next stop was  to pay for some air tickets to Cape Town over Christmas and New Year. The money was counted and I watched incredulously as the agent printed out the tickets; two pages for each! E-tickets no less!

“Oh, would you have preferred it as an email?” she asked when I remarked on the irony of e-tickets using so much paper.

“It’s a bit late for that” I muttered picking up the sheaf of papers.

It’s not just Zimbabwe that has trouble adapting to the electronic age. Earlier this month at London Gatwick airport in the UK I was checking in at the Emirates counter. I was very pleased with myself having done a check-in online and got my 2D bar code on my new smart phone. But nobody wanted to see it – they wanted to see the  e-ticket on paper!

The dirty state

7 07 2011

I returned from a week long visit to South Africa recently and unusually chose to drive to Jo’burg and back. Well, I was expecting to buy all sorts of things for the business and myself that would not fit in a suitcase.

I last drove to South Africa in 2009 before the start of the World Cup when frenzied preparations were being undertaken. I mainly saw the effect of all this on the road system and in places the going was tedious. This time the benefits were obvious; the roads in South Africa are probably the best I have driven on anywhere in the world! Zimbabwean roads are by any standard, appalling. Though there were no vehicle dismembering potholes (maybe the tolls ARE going somewhere useful) there were sections so undulating that 80km/h was a prudent speed. South African roads are also tolled and cost anything from $1.50 to $5 but it seems that the tolls do go into road maintenance – the toll roads are privately run. Under South African law there has to be an alternative route to the toll road which is not the case in Zimbabwe.

My impression of the South African economy is that it is robust. The Clearwater shopping centre in Roodepoort in south-western Jo’burg has changed markedly since I was last there last September. It’s bustling with shoppers too. Of course this is in direct contrast to the Zimbabwe economy which, according to the Economist, is the second worst performing in the world. Haiti is the worst. And what’s more they are advertising credit cards on the radio! I find it difficult to believe in the face of all this that the South African economy is doomed as is a commonly expressed opinion amongst whites (especially). Yes, South Africa does have its problems. Whilst I was there COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) was effectively calling for a communist state (uncompensated take over of private business and land a la Zimbabwe) and being highly critical of the status quo and they were being taken seriously enough that the CEO of Anglo American (a very large and powerful multinational based in South Africa) was weighing-in and rallying commerce against this threat but it has since emerged that COSATU had no economic plan of their own.

And South Africa is clean. Zimbabwe is littered with plastic bags by the road and also the occasional dead donkey or cow killed by the heavy transport. The joke used to be that the plastic bag was the national flower of South Africa but it seems that this situation might have reversed and Zimbabwe is now the dirtier of the two neigbouring states. Crime however, always a bane of the southern neighbour, has not improved. Staying with friends near Hartebeespoort Dam north-west of Jo’burg was an exercise in alarms and infra-red beams at night and they’d had two attempts to break in in the last month and were expecting another. Of course this happens here too but not to this extent and seldom during the day. Zimbabwe officials are much more friendly too. I didn’t come across a single toll collector on the roads who didn’t want to have a chat. Customs officials too were friendly unlike their South African counterparts. But yes, the South African border was more efficient!