Monthly Archives: December 2013

The ‘free dinners’ making Wenatex shareholder a motza

Have you recently received an ‘Exclusive Dinner Invitation’ from a company called Wenatex in the letter box?

The letter says:

In order to satisfy the ever-increasing demand, we would like to invite you and your partner as our personal guests to one of our entertaining information evenings, which includes a wonderful dinner. While dining…we will inform you about current trends and new scientific research into the subject of healthy sleep…attending guests will receive a fantastic gift as an additional thank you.

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The Wenatex $50 mystery gift voucher

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Wenatex free dinner voucher

While reading this letter, my thoughts drifted to a hot day in Koh Samui in April 2010 and how my wife and I had been duped into giving up our afternoon in the hope we’d make some money for our back packing holiday. This is what I wrote in my journal:

Tuesday 6th April 2010: Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui:

“While walking back to our hotel room for an afternoon siesta, stopped by tanned English couple on motorbike. Gave us scratchy cards.  Surprise! We’d won a great prize – cash, laptop, camera or dream holiday Next thing, we found ourselves in a cab on our way to 90 minute timeshare presentation…

That afternoon, after the sales presentation (so boring, the memory of it is completely erased from my consciousness, but it must have happened as it’s in my travel journal) we were shown around expensive holiday resorts, given free cocktails and then subjected to the “hard sell” for timesharing that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

When the salespeople finally gave up, we received our prize: a voucher for a holiday at a resort in Thailand, not valid for immediate use. My guess is everyone gets that voucher. (A year ago I found it in an envelope among some travel mementos. It had long-expired.)

It struck me that the psychology behind the Wenatex dinner invitation is almost exactly the same as the Thailand ‘con’ we had experienced three years ago. You think you’re getting something for free (a fancy meal + gift or expensive prize) but what you really get is a high-pressure sales pitch designed to make you part with thousands of dollars.

Wenatex Australia has been offering their free dinners all over Australia and New Zealand since coming here in 2002 from their home base in Saltzburg, Austria.

Their high pressure selling techniques were exposed on NZ current affairs show, Fair Go, which snuck cameras and two reporters into a Wenatex dinner and information evening. The video showed a lady giving the sales presentation and suggesting, outrageously, that a Wenatex sleep system had cured a man previously confined to a wheel chair.

For more of the flavour of these evenings, you can read comments on consumer forums here and here (My suspicion is that some of the more favourable reviews are written by Wenatex staff.)

So just how successful is Wenatex at signing up customers at these free dinners?

The answer, emphatically, is: Very!

I obtained a copy of Wenatex Australia’s most recently filed annual accounts.

They show that for the 2007/2008 financial year the company earned a whopping $30.8 million (up 25% on the $24 million earned the previous year).

wenatex3Assuming an average spend of $10,000 for a Wenatex sleep system, that’s more than 3,000 customers who have been convinced or coerced into parting ways with a big chunk of money on a supposed free night out.

Profit for the year was a shade over $2 million with the biggest expense – not surprisingly – being sales and marketing (those free dinners) which totalled nearly $9 million.

wenatex4Of the $2 million worth of after tax profit, nearly ($1.8 million) was paid to shareholders, which comprises a company called “Iways Pty Ltd”

There are four equal shareholders in Iways. They are Claude Wernicke, the CEO of Wenatex Australia, and presumably his sons –  Stephen, Michael and Justin Wernicke.

Split four ways, the Wernickes each took home $450,000 in 2007/2008, that on top of any salaries earned. And that was five years ago. Given their rate of growth, they could conceivably be earning $1 million each by now.

Carpet salesmen-origins

The Wenatex sales strategy and the Thailand scratchy card/time-share ploy are essentially sophisticated, dressed-up versions of what you’ll experience if you venture into a carpet shop or trinket store in Morocco, Egypt or India – where you will be offered free tea, and a tour of the factory “just to look” before the big sales pitch and relentless bargaining begins and previously very friendly shop owner turns less so. (In Essaouira, Morocco in 2010, my wife and I found ourselves having our photos taken dressed up in full traditional Bedouin costumes before having carpet after carpet thrown at our feet despite out protests.)

Of course – just as we did from that carpet shop, you can go along to the Wenatex dinner, stuff your belly, listen to their spiel and walk away. But as the annual accounts show, thousands don’t. Instead they part with thousands of dollars for mattresses, quilts and pillows that they never really needed.

Do yourself a favour. Tear up the Wenatex invitation. Splash out a $100 of your own money and enjoy a guilt-free, relaxing fully paid for dining experience.

Unless you’re really keen to spend $10,000 on bedding!

The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.

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Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.

Me.

I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship':

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

What Mandela gave me: one glorious day and hope for the future

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election in Port Elizabeth

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election (stands in Port Elizabeth)

This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,

It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:

I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.

Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.

In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.

But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.

On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.

Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.

I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.

I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.

In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.

That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.

“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”

Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.

There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.

Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.

The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.

Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.

I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the  road. Sadly, it never happened.

What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.

Not Wikipedia worthy: The story of Jennifer and Jordan Nash

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One Saturday morning in July, I received a call from Jennifer Nash, a single mother living in Logan City, south-east Queensland.

She asked if I would consider writing an article about her son, Jordan Nash, to  be posted on Wikipedia, the free user-sourced internet encyclopedia. She hoped a Wikipedia article would draw attention to his sad story.

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Jordan Nash, as a young school kid

I said I thought I could help.

Her story tumbled out over the phone: she was at war with the Queensland government and the Federal Government since Jordan  – who has learning difficulties – was removed from school almost 10 years ago.

Jennifer claimed she’d been bullied, mistreated, harassed, ignored, hit with a $28,000 court bill and been the victim of judicial corruption because a court transcript – which proved she had been bullied and mistreated – had been “edited”.

Over the next few months I spent many hours on the phone with Jennifer, an exhausted, but determined and sincere woman, as she described what had been done to her.

Much of her and Jordan’s story appeared on unofficial media sites – essentially citizen journalism or blogging sites like Independent Australia  – but some of it did make it into the mainstream media.

In March 2011, WIN Television reported her address to former Queensland state premier Anna Bligh at a community forum at Toowoomba, where she said, quite eloquently, that “this soul crushing travesty of justice cannot be allowed to be covered up any longer”.

Last year she appeared in the  Brisbane Times, which incorrectly reported that she’d called then prime minister Julia Gillard “white trash” at a community cabinet meeting at Redbank Plains outside of Brisbane. The story, later corrected by the online newspaper, was that she had in fact told the prime minister “We are not white trash” as she explained to radio presenter Gary Hardgrave on radio station 4BC

Jennifer and Jordan Nash speaking out at a community cabinet

Jennifer and Jordan Nash speaking out at a community cabinet

Her battle reached the upper echelons of power this year, when both her and Jordan were  banned from attending a federal government community cabinet in Rockhampton by Jamie Fox, a government secretary working within the cabinet of then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who was due to speak at the event.

Asked why she’d been banned, Jamie Fox responded via email that following checks by “security agencies” the government had been advised by the Attorney-General’s Department and the state police that she had a “history of disrupting public events” at other community cabinets and would not be permitted to attend.

“I am responsible for organising community cabinet meetings and this decision is taken on my authority,” wrote Fox.

Jamie Fox's email to Jennifer Nash

Jamie Fox’s email to Jennifer Nash

Just what had a single mother without any financial or political muscle done for the Australian government to ban her from airing her views in a forum seemingly open to all?

The answer: stand up on a chair and demand justice for her and her son.

Hardly the sought of behaviour I thought to warrant a security crackdown or a sneering email from one of Kevin Rudd’s flacks.

In late August, I submitted the story of Jennifer and Jordan Nash to Wikipedia.

It was rejected by someone called “Sionk” who wrote:

This submission’s references do not adequately evidence the subject’s notability

Sionk also remarked:

Maybe there has been extensive news coverage of Jordan Nash, but there isn’t any presented here. The way this is written is also problematic, Wikipedia isn’t the place to make lengthy, one-sided (and poorly sourced) legal arguments.

Essentially, what Sionk was saying was that Jordan Nash was not worthy of  a Wikipedia article because his case had not been reported in the mainstream press and he was not someone of note.

I explained to Jennifer that no matter how many times I re-wrote it, I did not think her story would make it onto the pages of Wikipedia for the reasons above.

I never heard from her again.

Every now and then I do a search for “Jordan Nash” wondering if Jennifer has managed to convince Wikipedia editors they should publish her story. But there’s still no entry.

Interestingly, many of the people who she accuses of mistreating her do have Wikipedia entries such as Queensland state member for Logan, Michael Pucci, who Jennifer says refused to help her, Supreme Court justice Jean Dalton, who dismissed Jennifer’s initial complaint at the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal (QADT) and former minister for education, Cameron Dick who dismissed further investigation into claims the court transcripts had been edited.

There’s some consolation for Jennifer. At least Jamie Fox, the government flack who barred her from the forum, doesn’t get a Wikipedia page.

(If you’d like to read more about Jennifer’s case, Independent Australia  provides a fairly comprehensive summary).