"It was an ordeal, since you could count on either long lines or phones that didn't work," he said. So Mr. Kekana, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, is looking to fill post-apartheid South Africa's telecommunications gap by running a network of pay phone banks under the auspices of U.K. telecommunications giant Vodacom, a cellular network operator.
The phone shortage is a legacy of apartheid, when the government funneled resources to the white minority while denying blacks anything that would enhance their ability to mobilize.
By contrast, the country's 5 million highly mobile whites, the vast majority of whom possess cars and conventional home phones, have helped turn South Africa into the fastest growing cellular phone market in the world.
Nearly a year after setting up shop, Vodacom boasts more than 150,000 users. Rival Mobile Telephone Networks logged 95,000 users since its introduction last June, exceeding expectations by 50%.
Despite the great need in the townships-according to one estimate, only 1% of black households have private telephones and 60,000 public telephones serve a population of more than 40 million-Vodacom and others are finding resistance in this market where resentment towards big business runs deep.
Vodacom has struggled with issues from widespread non-payment of services; it and MTN are finding themselves subject to complicated negotiations over phone locations with local civic associations, local gangsters and vigilante groups known as "self-defense units."
Although MTN spends about $2,800 installing and maintaining each call box at no charge to the vendors whose shops house the phones, they are still often viewed with suspicion. "Instead of saying `Here's a phone that can enhance my sales,' a vegetable vendor says, `I'm being conned again by a white man wanting to rip off blacks,'*" said John Moore, MTN's community phone manager.
As a condition of entering the previously untapped South African cellular marketplace, the government required Vodacom and MTN to pour more than $280 million over 10 years into socially uplifting efforts like job training programs and the community phones offering subsidized rates.
Vodacom, committed to providing 22,000 public cell phones by 1999, has taken a job-creation approach with its phoneshop concept. Since September, Vodacom has installed 2,000 public Global Systems Mobile cellular phones in townships covered by its network. Entrepreneurs operating the phoneshops collect money from callers, taking a 33% commission.
The calls cost about 13 cents per minute locally, and about 51 cents for calls to neighboring countries. If a phoneshop operator can come up with an initial cash investment of 10% of the $20,000 total cost of a phoneshop, Vodacom will offer them a franchise.
Mr. Kekana's five Vodacom phones, located in a shipping container strategically placed next to a busy Evaton taxi stand, can ring up $200 in calls per day.
MTN has taken a different approach with a GSM callbox operating on a debit-card system. MTN has deployed 500 of a planned 7,500 units in 32 townships nationwide. Dependent on operators, Vodacom's phoneshops are generally open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. but MTN's callboxes are open 24 hours.
The rugged MTN "community phones," which resemble conventional pay phones and run off any 12-volt power source, are set up on the outside walls of existing businesses. The cost and duration of each call are displayed on the phone's display screen. The adjacent businesses sell the $2.85 debit cards, with a pre-paid number of minutes, at a small profit.
MTN and Vodacom are running their community phone programs on a non-profit basis. "Companies that don't have a social program aren't going to last in this country," said Vodacom Community Service Manager Leslie Mampe.
He said Vodacom's biggest headache has been "the culture of non-payment" in the townships, a continuation from the days when residents boycotted rent, electricity bills and other payments to protest apartheid authorities and render the townships ungovernable.