I glanced around at the newcomers at the back of the line, and remembered how it been to stand there as a green newbie, so long ago. Most were still showing their annoyance, sighing or leaning out to glare at the tellers. Two muttered “Bladdy ridiculous!” and stomped out. But they’d all learn, soon enough. The queue always wins. When it comes to banking in South Africa, resistance is futile.
It’s a strangely peaceful community, this silent pilgrimage of the hopeless, and once you accept that your day is now irretrievably derailed you begin to measure out your life in smaller, less ambitious fractions: half a glance at a person half-turned towards you; a quarter-step forward every quarter of an hour.
Here, adrift on the Sargasso Sea of customer service, I thought about the slogans of South Africa’s largest banks, and how even their wording renders protest impossible. We’ve heard them a thousand times, those plastic platitudes that seem to invoke sophisticated and dynamic service; but the fact is none of them are promising anything except waffle.
“Moving forward” merely describes a drunk falling face-first into a pavement. “Prosper”, likewise, is what bankers do while we stand in queues. “How Can We Help You?” is just a big old tease. How can you help me? Gosh, well, some scones and a foot-rub would be great, and – oh, that’s not what you meant? Then why the hell did you offer in the first place, you annoying gang of usury-pimping prats? And as for “Make Things Happen”, well, the only way that slogan could be more non-committal is if it promised to “Maybe Do Something At Some Point”. No, we can’t really be angry with the banks for poor service, because they’ve never promised anything different.
How have we allowed the storing of money to become so desperately unsexy?
Not that I blame the people behind the counters. On the contrary, the tellers at my bank are always polite and friendly despite the awfulness of their job. Only torturers have unhappier customers, and yet they listen and nod and tap at their keyboards without fuss. And then they tap some more. And some more. That’s partly why I stay on good terms with them: I hope that one day they’ll show me what they’re doing on those keyboards.
You’re fetching your credit card, sir? Certainly. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap tappity tappity tap-tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap tap. Tappity. Tap. OK, sir. I can confirm that you are a customer of this bank. Now let me just see if your card is in this envelope right here, the one that has your name printed on it next to the words “CREDIT CARD”. Tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap tappity tap-tap-tap … Right. If you scan your old card, I’ll tap another 86 times and then I can call up your details on the system …
This isn’t how banking was supposed to be, surely? Our materialistic world has decided that there is nothing sexier than money, so how have we allowed the storing of that money to become so desperately unsexy? Some of the new banks have tried to fill a gap in the market by offering more user-friendly services and providing a human face. But that’s not the problem.
I don’t want my bank to be user-friendly or to have a human face. I want it to be Byzantine, extravagant and unsympathetic. I don’t want someone with a name-tag to greet me in a neon-lit cubicle. I want a cadaverous official with a duelling scar down his face to give me the secret handshake in a cellar lit by firelight. When he says “How can we help you?” I want him to be alluding to the secret poisoning of my enemies. When he says “Moving forward” I want him to be leading me into a vault past a pair of Siberian tigers trained to eat bank robbers, politicians and tax collectors, and ushering me into a room carved from a single slab of black obsidian. I don’t want to draw cash from an ATM. I want my money to be brought to me on a purple satin pillow, in currencies that reflect my mood: dollars if I’m feeling optimistic, euros if I’m suffering from ennui, and roubles if I’m feeling insecure. Oh, and rands if I want to buy a pie at the petrol station on my way home.
I reached the counter, in the end. It was late afternoon, and the man in front of me had just died of old age so I didn’t feel too bad skipping ahead of him. I got a friendly greeting and several thousand taps on the keyboard. I even got the statements I’d come for. But I didn’t get the experience I wanted; the experience we all deserve. Hear that, banks? Tigers. Obsidian. Roubles. The ball is in your court.
First published in The Times and TimesLive