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Fact-check — Is Woolies going cashless and do they have the legal right?

Fact-check — Is Woolies going cashless and do they have the legal right?
Yoco card machine in action. (Photo: Supplied)

It was the first great scandal of 2024 on the South African internet: the news that one of the country’s most beloved supermarket chains would be going cashless. 

As is so often the case, the idea that Woolies would soon only accept cards turned out to be only a tiny bit true.

The source of the rumour seems to have been a viral tweet, now viewed close to 2 million times. The tweet consisted of a photograph of Woolies signage saying: “From 16 January 2024 we will no longer accept cash, as we’ve joined a global responsible business initiative that prioritises customer and staff safety. We’re sorry for any inconvenience”.

The person who tweeted this made their dissatisfaction with Woolworths clear, and it didn’t take long for hordes of others to jump on the bandwagon.

Woolies speedily clarified that it is only Woolworths Cafes which are going cashless from mid-January, not Woolies supermarkets.

But even that decision has caused a surprising amount of anger. It’s also prompted some fairly interesting discussions about whether it is even legal for a chain like Woolies to stop accepting cash in even a small part of its business: after all, cash is legal tender. 

It turns out, the principle is similar to the sign carried by many establishments saying “right of admission is reserved” — Woolies does have the legal right to determine how they want you to pay in their shops.

They also, incidentally, have a very good reason for partially cutting out cash — and that is the insane risks attached to transporting money in this country currently, which also makes it an extremely expensive business. Cash in transit heists surged nationally last year, they’re also one of the most violent forms of crime.

But though the legal issue may be relatively clear cut, there’s a moral complexity here: that’s the fact that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to have access to debit or credit cards. This is also the case for many undocumented foreign nationals. 

According to a 2021 paper by the Stellenbosch Business School, there are around 11 million people in South Africa who rely almost entirely on cash. You may legitimately say that they are also unlikely to be the target market for Woolies Café’s extremely expensive avocado toast, but it’s the principle of the thing.

There is also an element of conspiratorial thinking in all of this: some people just don’t like using cards because they’re fundamentally opposed to the idea that The Man is tracking them in some way. 

The bad news is that your phone already has you under far more rigorous surveillance. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • PJ R says:

    FACT CHECKED – 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer SA “Government and media fuel a cycle of distrust”
    The growing trend of journalist starting their headline as “Fact Check” is worrisome.
    If you write it, it must be true? Have no lessons been learned from covid? You don’t get to say “for the greater good”, you were supposed to defend the constitution. Luckily, The ConCourt saved us from the IEC, ANC and the media houses that forgot about duties to hold government to account. Seriously, stop this “Fact Check” nonsense.

    • Charles du Sautoy says:

      So, you would rather have it that we all believe a half-truth and that nobody should tell us that it’s not Woolies supermarkets going cashless, but actually Woolies cafe? Because that’s what you said. I have no problem with journalists following things up and informing me, adding nuance and depth to a story. You are right – the mere utterance of the word “fact” does not make the story true. But in these days of wild online speculation, crazy conspiracies, and the gullible naiveté of so many consumers of online media, a conscious attempt at checking the veracity of stories is a welcome and necessary activity.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Woolies can make their own decisions, but as far a the general population is concerned, this is a no-go. In townships and many other places (like buying Eskom airtime), only cash is acceptable. Would always carry a few coins around, especially in giving tips, like parking attendants.

  • Paula Fonseca says:

    Cash is dirty in every way.
    Should have died a long time ago together with money laundering bosses.
    Even car parking assistants at my local shopping centre have smart phones.

    • Denise Smit says:

      Are you in SA

      • Charles du Sautoy says:

        I am in SA and I agree. Cash lubricates crime and corruption. You can’t tell where it came from, or where it goes. That’s why criminals love it. So do corrupt politicians and officials. You may recall how one famous politician hid millions in his sofa. There are perfectly good alternatives – in Kenya there’s m-Pesa – mobile money that’s made hard cash almost redundant.

    • William Kelly says:

      It is also yours. Imagine SARS having access to your digital cash. Oh wait, they already do. It’s why I use cash and gold.

  • Sanparks has already gone cashless.

  • Its their business – they can decide what to do and the market will decide the value of the decision. Nothing wrong with cashless esp in a community with violent criminal history.

  • Mike Newton says:

    If you pay with a card, who gets the tip?

  • Guy Reid says:

    Surely this is the way things are going in any event.

  • Steve Marks says:

    Choices – Eat elsewhere

  • Bick Nee says:

    I don’t get the fuss. I haven’t used cash since Apple Pay became a thing (2021?) Makes life much simpler and safer, not to mention convenient.

  • brittafroehling says:

    this interview I link below is very educational and important: a cashless society is terrifying. We need to keep both options, cards and cash. Brett Scott, a South African who wrote the book “Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for Our Wallets” is very educational on what money is and how it works. I highly recommend this discussion with him to understand more.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Just another Woolies bashing hoohaa.
    Ridiculous all round.
    W is not going cashless, and if they were, so what?
    All over town in all sorts of shops it’s cashless.
    If you only have cash, try next door.

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