Friday, 16 August 2013

Be a spy

I like P5 coins. I like that we carry around in our pockets and purses a token with the word Ipelegeng on it. I like it because we need to be reminded that the only people who will really stand up for our interests are ourselves.

Yes, I know that you and I don’t have any special legal powers, no action hero superpowers and no particular knowledge that will equip us to fight against abuse but the truth is simple. If we don’t complain, nobody will ever know we were abused.

The evening before writing this we were in one of those sell-everything-cheap stores in a middle of the range shopping mall, just to have a look round before visiting a restaurant. As well as an enormous array of the lowest possible quality toys, man-made fibre clothes and a vast array of phones, watches and jewellery that clearly weren’t exactly genuine the store had a number of items that were more worrying.

Not that pirated goods aren’t worrying, in fact they can be lethal. A flight attendant in China was recently killed, electrocuted while she answered her iPhone as it was charging. It’s important to know that this was nothing to do with Apple or its products. She was using what was politely referred to as “a third party charger” to charge her phone and it’s probably safe to assume that it hadn’t reached the exactly standards that Apple require of their own products. A few years ago we were shown photos taken by a Gaborone businessman of his trousers which had caught fire while he was wearing them. The culprit on this occasion was a “third party” replacement battery for his Nokia cellphone that had spontaneously burst into flames in his pocket. He was lucky to survive intact.

A year ago one of our office computers was completely destroyed when a visitor to our office decided to play a pirated music CD on it. The CD shattered inside the drive, destroying the drive and shooting shards of plastic throughout the casing, killing the entire PC stone dead. Luckily we had backups. Correction, it wasn’t luck, it was experience. We also now have much stricter rules about what visitors can do in our office.

But back to the store. The thing that worried me most was the less technological devices they were selling. Kettles, irons and electrical plugs. I’m no expert but it’s fairly easy to spot cheap crap when you see it. Irons are meant to feel fairly heavy when you pick them up. Their heavy-duty plastic casing is meant to feel heavy-duty. The mains cable is meant to enter the device securely and not feel like it’s going to fall off at any moment electrocuting the user. Same for the kettles. The lid is meant to fit tightly so that steam and boiling water doesn’t splash out all over your toddler’s face. The plugs are meant to be solidly made and not catch fire at the slightest opportunity. None of the items I saw there seemed good enough. I can’t believe that any of these items would have passed testing by the Bureau of Standards.

But BOBS and the other regulators, even though they have a duty to test things, can’t be everywhere at once. Even with massively increased resources (which they’re never going to get) they still couldn’t be in every store at every moment.

But we are.

I suspect that every store in the country is visited by at least one Mmegi reader every day, even in the most remote places. WE are the eyes and ears of the regulators. We are their agents in the field. Even though we’re not paid to do it, we are the field staff of the various regulators. We are all agents for the Bureau of Standards, the Bank of Botswana, BOCRA, the telecoms regulator, the Consumer Protection Unit, the Department of Immigration, the local councils and the Police. If we see something wrong and we don’t tell them, how can we blame them for not knowing?

We don’t live in a Big Brother state where everything we do is watched, recorded and investigated. We can’t expect the authorities to know things if we don’t tell them.

We even need to be informants for management. I recently heard of a situation where a customer at a restaurant was presented with a hand-written bill when she asked to pay. There wasn’t a power cut, there hadn’t been a communications failure with the point of sale device, the till hadn’t (it turned out) run out of paper. This was what is sometimes politely referred to “retail shrinkage”, the loss of money between the point of manufacture and the point of sale, on this occasion due to the waiter stealing the money. Instead of entering a sale into the till, he wrote a manual bill, took the customer’s money and just put it in his pocket, leaving no record at the store that the sale ever took place. Nobody is going to notice a little less coffee, coke or ice-cream.

The difference in this case was that the customer thought it strange and later called the manager to check if this was legitimate. No, she said, it’s not. The waiter is now looking for another job.

We need to do this more often. When we see theft or dangerously low-quality items, particularly those that might incinerate us, we need to speak up. We need to tell the authorities where they need to check on our behalf. We need to call in “the big guns” when they’re needed. If we don’t tell them where to look, can we really complain when they don’t see?

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