Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Great South African Bank Rip-Off

When I returned to South Africa after living abroad for 9 years, I was surprised to find how far the quality of service at Nedbank, a bank I've dealt with for 30 years, has slipped. Here's a small fraction of the problems I've had, all leavened with being asked "to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?" every time I've contacted the call centre.

For a start, my cheque account was a on a low monthly charge, high transaction fee structure, which was suitable when I had a low number of transactions on it. This I could change, but the change only took effect in the next billing cycle. In the meantime, I was waiting for a credit card, and used my cheque account card for shopping, and incurred transaction fees at a rapid rate. Had I opened a new account, the new transaction fee would have applied immediately. Why should it cost me more as an existing customer than a new customer who walked in the door?

Then there's the credit card. For a start, I was treated as a new customer with no credit history on setting the credit limit, and told this could only be reviewed in 6 months. That set me up for feeling positive about a 30-year relationship.

Then I had a failed transaction on my cheque account. The merchant tried the transaction three times, then I gave up and paid cash. This showed up as three purchases and three reversals with six transaction fees. I am still waiting for those to be reversed more than a month later.

The one that really took the cake was when I bought some prepaid air time for a couple of cell phones, using my credit card on the bank web site. All three transactions incurred an "SST transfer fee". In Nedbank terminology, "SST" means self-service terminal, the machines they have in branches, so this immediately looked odd to me because I did an internet banking transaction. What's more, for a purchase, no transaction fees should apply. After complaining several times, these were reversed, no reason given. I have not since bought air time on the web site, as I was unsure if the reason for the problem was resolved. When my statement showed up, I was charged 73c for finance charges, despite paying before the due date. Another round of calls to the call centre (actually, several call centres: I tried the complaints department, who said I should talk to the card division, who referred me to the SAA Voyager card division: by this time, I was thoroughly sick of "to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?").

It turns out that Nedbank regards any transaction on internet banking as a cash transfer. Please check this screen grab out. Does this or does this not include the word "purchase" in more than one place? How am I supposed to know that in Nedbank's world, this is not a purchase but a cash transfer? And why would any sane person, knowing that a cash withdrawal from a credit card incurs interest, make such a withdrawal to buy something that you can buy using a standard credit card transaction (the other meaning of "purchase") at thousands of locations around the country?

I think I made the point to them that I was sufficiently fed up that they should refund the 73c as well, but they ended with telling me this is the last time. Yes. It's also the last time I buy air time online from them, and if they really want last times, I'll be shopping for another credit card.

I do not phone a bank call centre because I want to make a new friend. I call them to solve a problem. Substituting fake politeness for competence is not a win. Get the same fake politeness a dozen times without useful effect, and you feel like throwing up when you get it again.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Angry African Response to Libyan Liberation

A group of 200 "prominent" South Africans have signed a letter objecting to the turn of events in Libya. This letter, titled "Libya, Africa And the New World Order - An Open Letter from Prominent Africans", is the most detailed apologia yet for the AU's position that there should be no outside intervention and only a "political" solution in Libya is acceptable

It's worth examining some of the claims in detail.
Our action to issue this letter is inspired by our desire, not to take sides, but to protect the sovereignty of Libya and the right of the Libyan people to choose their leaders and determine their own destiny.
Questionable. Failing to address the very real problems of the Gaddafi regime -- its total suppression of civil society, its lack of popular legitimacy and the extravagant lifestyle of the ruling elite who treated the country as a personal fiefdom -- is taking sides.
Libya is an African country.
That's clear. But it's also part of the Arab world, and the Arab League recognised this for what it was early on: a popular uprising being suppressed with brutal force.
When the UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1973, it was aware of the AU decision which had been announced seven days earlier.

By deciding to ignore this fact, the Security Council further and consciously contributed to the subversion of international law as well as undermining the legitimacy of the UN in the eyes of the African people.
Or maybe the AU undermined its own legitimacy by failing to come up with an effective strategy. When this was all happening people were dying in large numbers, and there was absolutely no evidence that the regime was open to compromise. On the contrary, it repeatedly announced ceasefires and immediately violated them.
The Security Council allowed itself to be informed by what the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its June 6, 2011 Report on Libya characterises as the "more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators".
The letter writers conveniently ignore the next sentences in this report:
That said, the repression was real enough, and its brutality shocked even Libyans. It may also have backfired, prompting a growing number of people to take to the streets.
The ICG, while playing down some extreme claims of the violence against protesters, makes it clear that the Gaddafi regime was given to extreme brutality, totally suppressed civil society 
It [the UN] then proceeded to 'outsource' or 'sub-contract' the implementation of its resolutions to NATO, mandating this military alliance to act as a 'coalition of the willing'.
First, this kind of delegation is not without precedent. Much the same thing happened in Bosnia. Second, inserting the words "coalition of the willing" is a not-so-subtle attempt at invoking the memory of Iraq. The letter writers cannot directly make that connection of course because that would be dishonest, so why do so in a backhanded way? The Iraq war was was not authorised by the UN, and was launched on a pretext that turned out to be a lie.
Duly permitted by the Security Council, the two 'coalitions of the willing', NATO and the 'Contact Group', have effectively and practically rewritten Resolution 1973.
Since this is a Security Council resolution, why is it so offensive if the Security Council "permits" further steps to implement it? How does this square with the claim that the NATO action is not compliant with the resolution? Are we to assume that the major world powers on the Security Council, including Russia and China, are all dupes of the West?
The actions of its 'sub-contractors', NATO and the 'Contact Group', have positioned the UN as a partisan belligerent in the Libyan conflict, rather than a committed but neutral peacemaker standing equidistant from the Libyan armed factions.
When one of the parties in a conflict is in clear violation of international law and human rights, why should they expect equal treatment?

The George W. Bush war against Iraq began on March 20, 2003.

The following day, March 21, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, published an abbreviated article by the prominent US neo-conservative, Richard Perle, entitled "Thank God for the death of the UN".
Aha. The Iraq connection. But of course this happily ignores the fact that in Libya, the UN did mandate intervention.
Contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council authorised and has permitted the destruction and anarchy which has descended on the Libyan people.
Let's see now. The second point of the Preamble to the UN Charter says:
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and ...
How often has the UN failed to deliver on the "human rights" promise embedded in the charter? And that is where I take strong exception to the AU position. South African liberation movements, most notably the ANC, overturned the long-held position of non-interference in internal affairs of another country when human rights are violated. That reading of the UN Charter is not a popular one among world leaders, especially despots but also including those who have reason to truck with despots. South Africans should be at the forefront of promoting human rights-based foreign policy, yet "leading" South Africans are at the forefront of insisting on even-handed treatment of a military dictator.

Have we forgotten our own history so soon?

And then there are the issues quietly ignored in the letter. The defections of Libyan diplomats, some quite early in the uprising when it was by no means clear. The consistent message from Al Jazeera reporting, a news organisation that favours reform but cannot be called stooges of the West, that this was a genuine grass-roots uprising, met with brutal force. The recognition of the new ruling body by much of the rest of the world. And finally, we mustn't ignore the fact that the Libyan government had at its disposal the option to accept the AU roadmap unilaterally and implement a ceasefire when the opposition was weak. They didn't. And now they are history.

The real lesson in all this is that learning from history requires that you understand all of it, not just the bits you like, or that support your case. That this open letter campaign was led by a senior academic does him and his university no credit. If Africa is to rise from its current trashed position, we need leaders who engage with and understand the wider world, not inward-looking leaders who are threatened by any external challenge. And the old Pan-Africanist mindset where anything African was to be defended at all costs does no one but our enemies any good, because defending the indefensible does not build strength. It builds weakness.