What is going on under the surface at Telkom?


Telkom, which in the old South Africa was a state-owned corporation, was later partially privatized, with the South African government now only owning about 40% of Telkom, while the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) had a 15% share in 2022.

The board and management function independently of any overt government influence. However, Telkom has performed poorly in recent years (especially since Covid-19 and with loadshedding), with its earnings, profits and share price falling severely. A new digital strategy has not yet borne enough fruit and there are processes underway to cut its workforce by as much as 15%.

Since late 2022, the digital data group Rain, the mobile phone company MTN and more recently a consortium consisting of the PIC, the investment vehicle of a previous CEO (Sipho Maseko) and the Mauritius-based Axian Telecom, have made takeover or merger offers. Both Rain and MTN have since stopped negotiations.

But this is not an article about Telkom’s financial achievements or shareholding, but rather about one new customer and consumer’s experience of this company.

Partially privatized company from “bottom up”

I decided in December 2022 to make use of one of Telkom’s fiber offers (at around R600 per month). After not hearing anything a month later, I followed up again. He apologized and forwarded the necessary documents. I completed the documents with the necessary information and submitted on February 10, 2023. On March 9, the connection was made and a few days later the Eloff household had a reasonably good fiber internet connection.

Towards the end of May the internet stopped working, but we attributed it to load shedding. One day in mid-June, a debt collector wants to talk to “Mr T Eloff” about his outstanding account of almost R3 000 with Telkom. I responded by saying that there must be a mistake, I have never received a Telkom bill. A number of calls from the same debt collection agency followed in the following days, during which I repeatedly asked them to send the bill to my correct email address – but nothing happened.

When I checked my bank statements and realized that no debit deductions had taken place by Telkom, I knew that I indeed owed an amount to Telkom. Also, because I wanted our internet connection back, I wanted to pay as soon as possible. But here a week and a half of frustration awaited. I was literally sent from port to starboard with Telkom not even being able to locate my account on their end.

The “My Telkom” application also bore no fruit. For four days in a row I received this message: “Uh oh… Something went wrong on our end. It’s not you, it’s us… Please try again in a few minutes“.

I also register on the website, give all my details and get access. There I get the heading “Manage my accounts“. Eventually. But with the press of that button appears the words “No accounts to display“. I try the bot, which asks for my mobile number. “We could not access your profile at this stage. Please try again or contact us for support“. When I try to connect my account, the screen replies again: “We could not identify you as a valid contact for this service on this account“.

Here is a new Telkom customer who wants to pay his bill for the service he received. However, he has not received a bill and therefore does not know what he owes. The debt collectors won’t or can’t help – they just have the amount with no other details. The call centers can’t help because they say the customer is not on the system. The customer also does not know how or where he should pay it – because he does not have an account number or reference number. And apparently no one can provide it.

I decide I’m going to apply for fiber from scratch. Within 24 hours someone calls from Cape Town to obtain details of my application. I give my ID and he confirms that I am in debt. However, I need to pay it quickly because they are about to cancel the service. He gives me the account number – and for the first time I have a Telkom account number! Back to Telkom app – no change. Then to the website – also the same messages – we can’t locate you. On the website I give written feedback that I am not at all satisfied and ask that someone (a real person) call me urgently.

Quickly call the Cape Town number again. Themba wants to know what he can help with this morning. I tell all my sorrows and he listens patiently. Then he asks me “B-number”. “Which B number?” “The one at the top of your account, sir”. “Themba, that’s my problem, I’ve never received a bill!” Then he just asked for my ID number, mobile phone number, physical address and postal address.

Themba remains patient and for the first time unfolds the facts of the sad Telkom story. Apparently the information on the form I submitted in February was never entered. Telkom still has a physical Potchefstroom address to which they sent the bills by snail mail!

But Themba is a miracle. He gives me the reference number with which I can pay my Telkom bill through my bank app, the B number and also the Easy Pay-number with which I can pay at certain stores. He even gives me the exact amount I owe and explains that it was a combination of the equipment and the monthly amount!

My frustrating experience ends on a positive note.

Why the malfunction?

And yet one wonders how many customers have gone through the same type of experience and then just gave in and canceled their service. And whether this is part of Telkom’s poor performance. How many of us wanted to throw the mobile phone away when we heard that modulated voice saying that your call is important to us, or wait a little longer – and then the call is cut off. Or if the bot on a website can only give certain standard answers, while my problem is not standard.

I also wonder why the technician did not pass the form with my updated information to the people who control the systems, or if they did, why my details were not changed on the system. I wonder why, when someone should have seen that I accidentally forgot to enter my bank account number on that form, didn’t stop the application and inquire first. I wonder what training Telkom’s different levels of management give their frontline people – because if people are not trained, it is ultimately management’s fault. And if management pursues racial quotas, but they don’t provide adequate training, they are responsible for poor service and poor results.

But in the end I wonder if Telkom can’t get more Thembas – who are service-oriented and can think for themselves and can help – and rather get rid of the others who can’t or don’t want to help. Perhaps the company’s earnings and share price will rise only then.

Telkom was a state-owned entity, which was partially privatized a few years ago. But the state still owns 40% of the company, with the PIC still owning around 15%. This means that the majority of shareholders still do not come from the private sector.

Could this be the reason that the management of Telkom and the basic service delivery which is essential in a competitive environment is still absent? Under the previous CEO, Sipho Maseko, it seemed that Telkom was beginning to compete well. But since he left, the company has apparently gone downhill. This can only be attributed to poor management and even poorer service delivery, because Telkom has strong infrastructure assets in the form of, among other things, a cable network.

However, the slow poison of state control has returned – probably via specific appointments to the board. And perhaps the same fate awaits the partially privatized South African Airways.