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A gnashing of teeth, sponsored by Absa

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Quick poll: Can anyone think of a bank whose quality of service stands heads and shoulders above the rest? Ha, thought not. For my sins, I use Absa, which at least has a snappier Internet site than the previous crowd, Standard Bank. That obviously counts for nought when I actually have to go into a branch and talk to staff.

For the first time in the three years I’ve been using Absa’s Internet banking, I screwed up my password three times in a row and got locked out of my account last week. Luckily for me, it was Friday afternoon and you lot were already thinking of the weekend and Saturday’s game meaning nobody would be clogging up the bank queues, so I grabbed my driver’s license (why does the bank need my ID or any other form of identification anyway? It’s not like I’m a 17-year-old trying to sneak into Tiger Tiger) and trotted over to the branch across the road from the office.

This particular branch has three points of service at its client services desk. And two of them were “offline”, according to the staff. I’ve been in Johannesburg for about 12 weeks now, and I’ve used that particular branch most often. Never have all three client services computers been staffed. That’s irrespective of how long the queue was. So there I was, on a Friday afternoon at month-end, stuck behind a large woman who smelled faintly of StaSoft because the genius gnomes at Absa don’t see the point of providing decent service to clients.

Look, it’s not just that. It’s the fact that we’re so used to a brisk rogering of a Friday afternoon, brought to you by your bank of choice, that we’ve stopped complaining about things that should have us rioting in the streets. For instance, why do banks act as if they’re doing me a favour by taking my money and putting it away? I get charged for that. Oh, and if I feel like taking my money out again, these fat pinstripe-suit-wearing, BMW-driving cats are there again for their pound of flesh. Internet banking? Oh, that will be a billion rand a month, sir.

My American friends assure me that this is not the case in that country. My European friends are pretty sure that there’d be trouble if the banks in their countries tried to pull the same stunts. And yet here we are. The fact is that the service offered by our banks is mediocre-to-average at best. It’ll do – that’s the best we can hope for. It’ll do. And for that, you pay.

You’d think then that entrepreneurs and investors would be clamouring for a banking license fee of their own. The easiest way to thrash the Big Four at their own game would be to start a bank that doesn’t charge for services on which a price tag simply doesn’t belong. ATM withdrawals. Internet banking. Et cetera.

The issue seems at first to be barriers to entry. Getting a banking license is hellishly expensive. Frankly, it’s easier to take that money and start another sort of business. Why isn’t the government making it easier to start a bank? We know why the Big Four aren’t complaining: the system suits them just fine. Why spend money on serving your clients better when there’s no incentive for you to do so?

Why are we forced to choose from a handful of cumbersome banks, and we see no movement from the regulators and government to change that. It’s not just the banks, is it? It’s the same story with our utility providers like electricity and telephones. Telkom once had carte blanche to be stingy with the Internet connections available in the country, and are still bottlenecking by refusing to unbundle telephone connections from ADSL lines. I refuse to have a phone at home (is there anything more annoying than being interrupted in the middle of dinner by a phone call?), but will have to pay for one if I want ADSL connection. It’s ridiculous. Heaven alone knows how deep these monopolistic tendencies go.

For all their talk of encouraging small business, our dear government isn’t making it any easier to be a small fish among the monopolistic sharks. Maybe it’s because they secretly don’t believe that small business helps the country. Or maybe the answer is much simpler – it’s more convenient to wave a big stick at four rather than dozens of banks.

There must be a reason why these banks are being allowed to get away with this sort of nonsense. If anyone knows, please do let me know. DM


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