I’m going into the ANC T-shirt biz

The Rand

The South African Rand

Let me be very clear. The shrivelling of the rand is not the fault of Jacob Zuma or the ANC.

It is a blatant lie that bad government is to blame. Because, of course, we don’t have bad government. We have no government.

I understand the confusion. I mean, it’s logical to assume that the people making speeches in parliament are politicians and that this implies the existence of some sort of government acting in the interests of the public.

But the thing is, those people aren’t public servants. What they are is just plain old businesspeople, running a very successful private investors’ club, accumulating and safeguarding enormous fortunes for their few hundred members.

I know it’s confusing, especially because they often call themselves “the government” and they’ve bought office space in parliament and various provincial legislatures. But blaming them for wrecking the economy is as silly as accusing Goldman Sachs of being a bad government. It’s not their job. It hasn’t been their job for six or seven years. And if you still think it should be, or that they might start doing it, then you really haven’t been paying attention.

I don’t know who broke the Zuma Rand. Perhaps we all did. Financial journalists regularly point out that we South Africans are uniquely inept with our money: those who have some tend to spend it faster than an SA Communist Party commissar in a Mercedes showroom.

One explanation could be that we’re fantastically bad with numbers. The press is still trying to figure out the calculation that raised the matric maths literacy mark from 38% to 71%, but I don’t think it was a calculation at all. I suspect it was an aesthetic decision: 7 looks a bit like a Nike swoosh, which is cool, so that had to be in there somewhere, and 1 looks like a finger, which is what maths literacy graduates use for counting, so naturally that had to go in too. All in all, a much nicer looking number than 38, because 3 looks like a broken 8, and 8 looks like Bennie Boekwurm, and nobody wants one-and-a-half worms for a final matric mark, right?

a lot of us are behaving like indignant British colonials

Another possible reason we spend more than we earn is that rands are increasingly depressing things to have. Over the years they’ve gone from being a tenner you discover in your pocket to a silver fiver you find in your car’s ashtray to that green, corroding 5 cent smear you scrape off the bottom of your kitchen drawer. No wonder we spend them as fast as we can.

To be fair, though, the rand isn’t dying alone. The Russian rouble can’t buy you a decent hit on a journalist in Moscow any more, and the Brazilian real is worth about as much as the floaters bobbing about in the Rio Olympic yacht basin. But still, it’s all very alarming for those of us raised on the myth of South African exceptionalism: regardless of our political leanings, a lot of us are behaving like indignant British colonials who have been herded into an internment camp, snapping open our parasols and marching over to the commandant to demand that he sorts out what is clearly just a terrible misunderstanding. We are South Africans, damn it! Surely there has simply been some clerical error that we can sort out like gentlemen?

But time and currency traders wait for no one, and the rand continues to reflect our meandering journey to wherever we’re going. The De Klerk Ront has been denounced: you’ll struggle to find anyone admitting they ever spent one. The Mandela Rand has passed away and become myth. The Mbeki Rand has been recalled. The Zuma Rand, a currency still quite useful for buying fire-pools and votes, will inevitably be replaced by another. Some are starting to whisper about the Dlamini-Zuma Rand, or, as euphoric British tourists would call it, two pence. And then? Will it be a Malema Rand, a unique dual currency that buys economic freedom for senior Fighters and fokkol for everyone else?

I don’t know, of course, because, like many people in so-called government, I know absolutely nothing about economics. But I do know that it’s time I found alternative revenue streams.

Luckily for me, there’s an election coming, which means South Africa’s three growth industries this year will be T-shirts, food parcels and speeches about redistributing land. The state already has speech writers — or at least a hand-cranked speech-generating machine made in Murmansk in 1958 — but I reckon I can still coin it with the other two.

Say, five million yellow shirts emblazoned with “VOTE FOR US OR YOUR SOCIAL GRANT STOPS”? Ten million hamburger buns emblazoned with the face of the president? Lordy, I’d make millions of rands! Literally dozens of pounds!

So long, suckers. I’m off to the printers.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


The Queue

history-01By mid-morning I had reached the middle of the bank queue and I was fully committed.

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