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Cashless society for SA could be a significant forced digital migration own-goal

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

You can be Uncle Pennybags, the Monopoly board-game mascot loaded with cash and coins but they won’t buy nada in some parts of the world, including South Africa.

At that moment in the game, the dice landed our silver ship on a property on the Monopoly board owned by our rival team. 

My partner and our older daughter seemed not to notice. There were two houses on the property. They could fine us a fortune.

Packed in neat stacks under the side of the game board was our (our youngest and I) fortune of Monopoly paper money. We were planning to hold onto it. We remained silent. Each “collect R200” was met with growing pre-2008 market crash eyes by my teammate.

At the next throw, we triumphantly pointed out we had squatted successfully on their property for an entire round. We were met with withering stares.

“That’s unethical,” shot back my partner adding “and in front of the children!” 

We were using the game to try and teach them about this thing money and what it does.

“This is not a game about Soviet Community Farming…It’s Monopoly! We are supposed to screw you over, how else are they going to learn about capitalism, legal tender and value of exchange?” 

The moral crossroads led to a question to learned friends on Facebook. Our position was overwhelmingly supported by the majority.  There was one dissenting voice. The then parliamentary leader of the DA Lindiwe Mazibuko.

It’s about feelings actually 

Before “Monopoly Electronic Banking” came along in its gaudy new packaging to replace the old game, our youngest would do everything and anything not to spend any of the paper money. 

She has since blossomed into a Gen Z cohort who has zero emotional connection to money as Professor Jay L Zagorsky, an economist and cash advocate who teaches at Boston University, has found.  

So much so that when she was recently offered crisp Randela she opined she would prefer “real money” instead.

The digital migration globally has created a generation of many young people in some parts of the world who don’t know what to do with coins and banknotes. And it isn’t good for them.

“There’s something called the pain of paying. When you pull out your credit card and tap it, there’s no pain. You pay cash, there’s a little bit of instantaneous regret. And if you’re trying to control your spending by spending in cash, you get that regret. You tend to spend less,” says Zagorsky.

I am with the Prof on this one.

Eliminating cash can harm us in many ways. It causes us to spend more, reducing our privacy and boosting prices we pay” he warns.

Where attempts to remove banknotes have occurred in the world, it has hit the poor heavily. This makes it “especially hard” for people earning a pittance in two-bit jobs or the unemployed who are forced to pay bank services they cannot afford. 

Of the migration to digital he says “it weakens our national defence by making us vulnerable to cyberattacks and natural disasters.  It increases crime since criminals can target us from anywhere in the world”.

Can we have a Hallelujah!

Boomers have witnessed the migration of legal tender from coins and notes, to cheques to credit cards to online. My first job was at Barclays Bank 123 Esselen Street Pretoria.

Back then Cash was King, Elvis, Muhammad Ali. 

India’s cash withdrawal catastrophe

Digital banking options and payments are great and massively convenient make no mistake. Until there is no power, or you realise your economy can’t function without cash, unlike Sweden, Holland, China and the US, it seems.

In 2016, India’s president Mahendra Modi, in an attempt to force the country into a cashless economy, invalidated 86” of its paper currency in an effort to raise more tax. 

It was a catastrophe for a country where about 90% of its transactions were in cash.

Shruti Rajagopalan, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center and a Fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University School of Law, in an interview on NPR’s (National Public Radio) “The Indicator From Money Planet”, said that there was a “sharp decline” in “labour force participation” as a result.

“About 15 million workers dropped out of the labour force….Households that didn’t have bank accounts experienced somewhere between 2- to 7% lower consumption than the group of households that did have bank accounts,” she said.

Hosts, Darian Woods and Wailin Wong, remarked that Rajagopalan had set out that, ignoring the politics and focussing on economics “her guess would be that the government just doesn’t understand the Indian economy and the reasons why there are so many informal markets that use cash”.

To which Wong responded that using the political lens, a different explanation swam into view — that “a motivation was for political purposes. Indian elections are coming up next year, and it’s believed that political parties are holding onto a lot of cash to escape rules and regulations around donations”.

South African banks are trying to wean us off cash you might have noticed and we are letting it happen without much protest at this point.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Paying car guards with credit cards: The move to a cashless society

The South African political, celebrity and criminal elite still loves cash, however, and some are not able to operate bank accounts in this country due to let’s say various legal complications.

Just recently a jurist in Cape Town alleges he had around R8-million in R200 notes stolen and spent by his ex-wife.

Delinquent former SAA director Dudu Myeni has been trying to pay off some of her considerable settlement debts with those very self-same R200 Cheetahs that have been stored somewhere.

Even our President’s staff at Phala Phala know that cash in South Africa still gets you far. Jacob Zuma is still Mr Money Bags it seems as well.

The banks don’t like cash, claiming it costs too much to transport in a country as lawless as SA. Government doesn’t like it because your every move is out of range.

Corruption is the excuse for digital migration but somehow the healthy horse is in danger of being taken out back and shot through the head. 

If you can’t even buy an ice cream or cup of coffee in some parts of the world or even South Africa with good, old-fashioned coins and notes, what’s the point of a free market or even profit? DM 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    I cringed at the casual slur thrown in, that being selfish and opportunistic teaches the kids about Capitalism. Capitalism is the voluntary, free exchange of our capital and labour or the product thereof. The emphasis is on voluntary and free. What is the alternative? So how about this, next time you play, hand out toy guns and teach them about Communism instead.

  • Mark K says:

    China is now almost completely cash free. Even the informal vegetable sellers at the side of the road use WeChat Pay and are surprised if you offer them cash. Nobody uses cards anymore, either. Being older, I dreaded losing my phone because I would be stranded, and hated how such payment services could be frozen for any or no reason. In response, I always kept enough cash in my wallet for emergencies and enough cash (in USD) at home to buy a plane ticket back to South Africa.

  • Johan Greyling says:

    You gave no feasible reasons why we should not have a cashless society besides mentioning a few people with wards of cash from ill-gotten gains having it stolen. Cash is what is killed for, to avoid tax, the black market, bribes, illegal transactions, to pay assassins. In my humble opinion, a cashless society will go a long way to solving crime and lots of society’s crime problems. Can only think that the criminals will be the only people dead set against it.

    • Dragon Slayer says:

      Completely agree – Imaging all the ‘hot-money’ piling up and being eaten by weevils and cockroaches in motor dealerships in the ‘coal belt’, bribed politicians couches, drug dealers toilet cisterns, Zama Zama mattresses and no queues while loan-sharks and assorted criminals empty out their victims bank accounts. – very happy to tap for a coffee!

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Most businesses and especially those in the tourism sector, have no option but to go cashless due to the security risks it poses.

  • Mohsin Wadee says:

    Your anecdotes on your kids and Monopoly was funny as heck😂

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    It is apparent from some of the observations that they only function in language at a literal level ! Is it any wonder that ‘religious’ texts are so widely abused by people from whatever persuasion. BUT … thanks for a provocative and engaging piece .

  • Nit Wit says:

    @Johan. Getting rid of cash is a great idea for the very reasons you mentioned but there are some very nasty side effects like loss off freedom and privacy.
    Once we go cashless the government has 100% control of our money. They could pass “anti-terrorism” laws allowing them to freeze bank accounts or even limit your freedom of movement by geo-ringfencing your payments. If you’re a dissident or speak badly of El President they could just turn off your money. If you paid an investigative journalist to uncover a politician’s dirty laundry the government would know about it.
    Such laws are easy to implement under the guise of good. Just look at how easy NHI is being rammed through without any thought about the repercussions to the tax payer.
    Bartering is an option once cashless but would be difficult as it requires two willing parties to transact.

    • Colin K says:

      I agree. Streaming tracks what we watch. Amazon, and digital publishers track what you read (FT article). Music streamers track what you hear. Banks track where you use your cards. Loyalty/rewards programmes track WHAT you buy. Google tracks just about everything they can about you. The less said about “social” (advertising) media the better. And in our bigger cities there are more and more cameras.

      There are so few spaces left for privacy one would at least want the OPTION to pay cash.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Maybe it a better way forward, no more cash in transit heists

  • Camille Augustus says:

    We are pushing to turn our kids Primary school to cashless, for no other reason than their safety. A school with cash school fees in the safe is an easy target for criminals, who will bring weapons and risk lives. It’s not worth it and like it or not, parents will be forced to adjust to a cashless environment. My kids, 13 and 9, have no idea how to use cash money. The only time they see cash is for the school currency curriculum, Xmas and birthdays. We parents are expected to take the cash the old Aunties gave them and transfer the same value to their bank accounts, so they can tap. They watch their bank balances, keep track of spending and budget accordingly: and they save more than we ever did, as kids. They’re much more financially literate than I was at their age.

  • William Stucke says:

    I was astounded when paying two separate medical specialists that both refused to accept credit cards recently. Cash only. One grudgingly allowed me to make an EFT: “I’ll trust you”, he said.

    Maybe because they were shrinks?

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