The hundreds of complaints that pour into my inbox may have similar themes, but they vary hugely in style.
Some people make ridiculous demands for compensation for minor consumer problems, such as finding a weevil in a box of cereal.
Some are disproportionately aggressive; others so timid they fear legal action if they complain to the media.
Every now and then I get an |e-mail from someone about a consumer experience that lends itself to dramatic expression, but the writer has opted instead for understatement, downplaying the incident to the point that it becomes super-compelling. To me, anyway.
Mervyn Bramwell, a pensioner who lives in Kestell, Free State, sent me one of those e-mails recently.
Actually, he sent it to an SA National Parks (SANParks) customer care consultant twice first, and copied it to me on his third attempt, on getting no response.
He was writing to complain about two nights he, his wife Pauline and two friends from the UK spent in Kruger National Park’s Skukuza camp in late January.
On their arrival they noted rodent droppings in several places in the kitchen, including the sink.
He also mentioned the fact that the toilet cistern was running constantly and the gas stove was out of gas, but it was his next rat comment that stands out for me.
The braai meat that they’d taken from the freezer to defrost for a braai was “chewed on by rodents”.
“For health reasons we threw the food away.”
Sensitive readers may want to skip the next line, which Bramwell wrote as point number 10 out of 14 (in tiny font): “In the evening many rodents were seen by all, clawing up curtains and running around in the kitchen and lounge area.”
Bramwell then slots in a compliment: “We were able to enjoy and appreciate the drives/viewing that the park offered.”
He ends by saying: “The health hazard created by the rodents in the accommodation was unacceptable; this was exacerbated by the fact that two members of our party have rodent phobias.
“Totally unacceptable for the money paid.”
Naturally, I got in touch with Bramwell, assuming the couples had cut short their Skukuza stay because of the rat infestation.
No, they booked in for only two nights, and they stayed on despite the rats clawing up the curtains.
“I do not seek recompense,” he said. “I merely seek an apology in response to my complaints.
“To my mind if the accommodation had been correctly serviced prior to our occupancy, these problems would have been dealt with.
“Thank you for following through. I was prepared to give up and let the matter rest.”
The Bramwells are no strangers to Kruger, having stayed many times in several rest camps, and visited for the day four times.
“I have never had reason to complain before,” he said.
I raised the matter with SANParks spokesman Reynold Thakhuli, who responded by saying that the “presence of rats” in some of Kruger’s camps was due to the artificial nesting and roosting sites created for them by the buildings, “as well as vast sources of food brought in by visitors and left outside”.
“We find it almost impossible to keep the rodents out of the buildings as they originate from the surrounding natural bush and are able to crawl through the tiniest of holes,” he said.
The camp did have a fumigation programme in place, he said, with the units being sprayed every three months, with follow-up inspections in-between, but this did not solve the problem.
“It merely creates a vacuum for more rodents to move in.
“We are extremely careful about using poison on an extensive scale, as this may kill many other animals that also roam the camps, such as genets, mongooses, owls and raptors.”
Thakhuli said SANParks was considering an alternative pest control product and would roll it out to all camps with a rat problem if it was found to be effective.
Now, I happened to be copied in on an internal e-mail thread, sparked by my media query, and though it was not meant for my eyes, I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t read it.
The camp’s hospitality manager – writing to a PR colleague who then did a “reply all” – began by saying that not all the camp’s units had rat problems.
Good to know.
But he went on to say that he believed the problem emanated mainly from the camp’s two restaurants and shop.
“I have addressed it with the restaurant management but it’s not improving at all. The rats roam around in full view of guests even in broad daylight,” he said.
“They have traps around the building but still the problem persists.
“They have now resorted to the old steel traps and are catching them daily but the numbers are just escalating.”
Asked why those observations were left out of SANParks’s response to my query, Thakhuli said: “A proper assessment needs to be made to ascertain if the problem really comes from (the restaurants).
“At this stage we cannot speculate.”
I also asked Thakhuli whether SANParks intended to make contact with Bramwell, given that he’d written three e-mails to an address supplied by a SANParks office, and had not had a single reply.
I also suggested that although he didn’t expect it, it may be appropriate to offer the Bramwells a complementary two-night stay at Kruger, given that rats weren’t the only problem they had with their accommodation.
He responded: “Yes SANParks will make contact with the affected parties and assess a way forward.”
Bramwell has since received an e-mailed apology and explanation by SANParks and was offered R725 – a 25 percent refund on the amount paid for that two-night stay – “for inconvenience caused”.
He accepted and was told the refund would take four to six weeks to process.
The organisation has a policy of responding to e-mails within 14 days. I daresay most consumers would consider their e-mail ignored if they didn’t get a response within a week.
VELVET SKY: HOW TO GET YOUR MONEY BACK
Predictably, given the widespread coverage of budget airline Velvet Sky’s woes, and speculation about impending liquidation, many of that airline’s ticket holders have written to me to ask whether they’d have any recourse if that happened.
Bruna Gilham wrote: “My husband booked air tickets online with Velvet Sky for us to fly to OR Tambo on March 16.
“Due to the current problems… he decided to see if he could cancel the tickets and get a refund.
“The response from Velvet Sky was that he couldn’t cancel or get a refund, because although they have currently suspended their services, they will be flying again from March 5.
“My concern is: what if their contingency plans come to nought and we are stranded?
“What consumer protection is available in these situations?”
The answer there is chargeback – it’s a protection offered by credit card companies globally.
If you pay for goods or services with your credit card and you don’t get them, for whatever reason, you may apply for chargeback by filling in a dispute form at the bank that issued your card.
It’s essentially a reversal of the initial purchase transaction.
Many Nationwide Airlines passengers got their money back in this way when that airline folded a few years ago.
I wrote to all four major banks last week, asking them to explain their chargeback procedures.
Here are their responses.
A cardholder has 120 days from the date of travel as reflected on the ticket to dispute and request chargeback via Absa for services not rendered.
Cardholders need to first attempt recovery from the supplier, failing which they are entitled to initiate a chargeback dispute.
From there, a formal process is followed between the issuing bank and the merchant’s acquiring bank (bank that processes card transactions on behalf of the supplier) to determine the validity of such dispute. Should the dispute be found to be justified, the supplier of the service is debited and the cardholder’s account is credited.
Chargeback rights apply where the service has not been delivered as contracted, whether the merchant has been liquidated or not.
To claim chargeback via Absa, call 0861 462 273, visit a branch, or |e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
In the event that Velvet Sky ceases operations and not merely suspends its operations, as is currently the case, cardholders who have purchased flight tickets from Velvet Sky using a payment card branded with a Visa, MasterCard or an American Express logo may contact their issuing bank for a chargeback, says Nedbank.
Chargebacks cannot be initiated where the merchant has expressed an intention to honour the flight or to accommodate the cardholder in a mutually acceptable manner.
Nedbank clients have just 30 days to raise a chargeback.
“This allows enough time for Nedbank to validate the chargeback before we finally submit it to the acquirer,” says Pamela White, the bank’s head of corporate card services.
In the case of an airline, that would be 30 days from the date of the scheduled flight, or “from when the cardholder was first made aware that the service would not be provided”.
In other words, from the date a liquidation is announced.
To claim chargeback from Nedbank, call the bank’s call centre at 0860 555 111.
A dispute form will be provided, and you’ll be asked to provide the standard documentation.
First National Bank
FNB clients have 180 days from the transaction date, or the expected delivery date, to apply for a chargeback.
If an airline goes into liquidation, the chargebacks start once the liquidation has been confirmed with the airline’s bank.
Velvet Sky ticket holders must contact Velvet Sky directly until further notice, as the airline has not yet been declared liquidated – they are currently just grounded.
Should they be liquidated, the acquiring bank (Nedbank) will then inform the different banking institutions to proceed with the standard chargeback process where applicable. Affected FNB customers should call 087 575 1111 to get the necessary form which needs to be completed and then e-mailed or faxed back to them.
Standard Bank gives its customers 120 days in which to apply for chargeback from the time the service has not been rendered.