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Goodbye, Mr Bank Manager – I’ll open my new account...

Defend Truth


Goodbye, Mr Bank Manager – I’ll open my new account by taking a selfie


Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff ( and Scrolla.Africa.

The first time I opened a bank account, it was in a grand branch of Barclays Bank in an era when the bank manager was a kind of demigod. I also remember the upheaval and drama when Barclays, quite rightly, left our then pariah country.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Back then, “going to the bank” was one of the things you did, like going to the post office or going shopping.

The bank held an extraordinarily central part in society by virtue of the fact that everybody got money from the bank. If you had a loan, or you wanted to deposit or withdraw money, the only way to interact with the bank was to physically go into the bank.

Back then, your branch was your branch. There was none of the interlinking we now have via internet banking.

As automatic teller machines (ATMs) emerged in the 1980s, my architect mother was hired by Barclays to design and build their ATM enclosures, which she continued doing for FNB after Barclays had pulled out of South Africa. Even then, “going to the ATM” was a thing people did.

When the internet arrived, my computer-genius best friend was working on Nedbank’s cleverly named Netbank project. I was a client and he got me one of the 50 test accounts. It was pretty limited in terms of functionality, but it was the beginning of a digital banking revolution.

I’ve been thinking about these changes in banking this week because I opened a new account entirely on my smartphone. By taking a selfie.

It took me about five minutes to run through the registration process on the new Capitec app, which launched this week to much fanfare.

I had a few hiccups when scanning my smart ID card, but it went through on the third try. This data was then verified against a database run by the Department of Home Affairs. This is a clever system of establishing someone’s identity that I have used several times when installing FNB’s app on a new iPhone.

Expect an SMS, Capitec instructed me. It duly arrived a few hours later.

The next process also took about five minutes, and requires three more selfies because the app does a wonderfully clever thing: instead of signing using a traditional means (pen, digital pen or digital-signing tech), each time you accept the three agreements, you take another selfie.

The process of selfie-taking involves placing your face inside an oval and moving your phone closer to your face as the oval gets bigger. I assume this is to check that you’re alive and the account isn’t being set up with a photograph. This will prevent anybody but the owner of the face from registering the bank account.

Capitec’s app itself, which I have only just begun using, seems like all other banking apps. The first thing I set up, taking just a few minutes, was a virtual credit card. This is another hot new banking app feature that has become mainstream in the past six months. I have been using such virtual cards for about three years – via Standard Bank’s thoroughly excellent Shyft app – and can vouch for their usefulness.

But what Capitec is doing differently (I’m sure they’re claiming it as some kind of first, but I haven’t read the media release) is this post-branch method of opening a new account. Other banks let you add a new account through their apps, but only if you already have an existing account.

This standalone functionality is particularly appropriate for Capitec’s mass-market customer base – and especially useful for people who live in rural areas who would have to both travel and pay to get to a branch.

The only problem I experienced is that you cannot cut-and-paste your account number after it appears. How, then, do you copy it and send it to someone?

The biometric authentication option (fingerprint or face scan) doesn’t work, which the app says is a known error. It’s an embarrassing one, given that the app’s stand-out feature is using selfies to create an account. Not being able to use that to replace the login pin code is something I’m sure will be fixed soon. (It may be because I’m using an iPhone instead of Android, which runs on 90% of all smartphones.)

Meanwhile, the banking world is closing all its fancy branches as digital takes over. I recently drove past my childhood bank’s building, which FNB took over after Barclays withdrew. It’s now a gun store. No, I don’t know if there is any link. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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