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Money matters. Except it doesn't, easily, in South Africa

On the grand scheme of things, I am a reasonably laid back traveler. I don't tend to get angry or wound up over that much and I am rarely in a really serious hurry. I'm a firm believer in the 'sh1t happens' school of thinking.

But one thing which has really got on my nerves slightly is the South African banking system.

I have used banks, ATMs and changed money all over the world, including some serious backwaters and dodgy-as-hell places, and can honestly say that I have never come across a more useless, inefficient and user unfriendly system as the South Africans have managed to contrive.

Take ATM's. In much of the less developed part of the world, many ATMs are only connected to either the Visa or Mastercard network. Visa in Africa, Mastercard in much of Asia. Then there are exceptions: Rwanda, for example is by African standards a very advanced country with a network of ATMs, but which are strangely not connected to the international system. But you learn that quickly, and get money inside the bank or change it at Bureaus. And in Malawi, because their largest note is the 500kwacha, the most you can ever takeout is 20000, or 40notes (roughly 100euro). Which is obviously plenty for most local needs, but if you are paying for activities or excursions, going off the beaten track, or trying to minimise withdrawals due to their cost, it can be frutrating. Any or all of these quirks can be annoying, but with a bit of forward planning and quickly learning, you accept it and it is all fine.

South Africa, then, should be a breeze. It has an extensive network of ATM's, generally linked to Visa, Mastercard and Maestro networks and has some decent sized notes. But some cards randomly don't work in all ATMs, or don't work all of the time. And, worse, the ATMs don't like giving you information. The amounts listed when you try and withdraw are normally very small (500rand max), so you end up pushing 'other amount'. Here you can input how much you want, BUT no ATM that i came across would tell you it's maximum withdrawal limit. It would either say declined, and let you try and again, or spit out your card with a big failure sign. Neither of these helps the nerves of travelers, especially newly arrived ones who suddenly think their card has been canceled and they are up sh1t creek. I would not be surprised if the banks probably share profits with the phone companies for panic calls to overseas banks.

Normally, my cards work everywhere - I have never in my life been anywhere before where I have had any regular problem (unless the whole system was down, or in one case, the magnetic strip on my card died). In South Africa, I would say that 75% of my ATM transactions were unsuccessful for whatever reason, none of them due to lack of funds or card problems on my side.

For the record, I think the highest withdrawal allowed from a South African ATM is 3000 Rand (Nedbank and Standard), but i'm not sure. Some might be higher. Many are definitely lower, with a 2000 or 1500 limit – one hostel I stayed in had an ATM with only a 500limit - and some banks seem to vary depending on time, day, phase of the moon and location of the ATM. Most give you a stack of 100bills, but occasionally they will give you solely 200s, or, as in one transaction, only 50s which gives you a wad which then gets stuck in the machine unless you yank them hard and repeatedly.

Then there are scams. Robberies at ATMs used to be commonplace. Even now using ATMs only in major locations and shopping centres (and not ones which are often left unused for many minutes) is highly recommended, and stand alone ones should be avoided. Even this is no guarantee. There is an FNB (First National Bank) ATM – at the bank, not a stand alone - on Long Street. This is Cape Town's biggest tourist and going out street, yet if you put in your card - any card – it will give you money but also automatically withdraw everything else in your account and move it to an unknown location. Complain all you want, but you are unlikely to ever see your money again. Both the bank and the police have been told many times, but neither cares or wants to do anything about it in the slightest.

And then there is changing money. This is easy and painless in pretty much every other country in the world. Changing money from hard cash to local currency – assuming the rate is good - is always better value than using ATMs. Except in South Africa. To allegedly prevent money laundering, no bank/bureau will change money (or even tell you what you will receive) until after they have taken your passport, and filled out lots of boxes on a computer. It is only then, 10minutes later, that you discover that despite the rate in the window saying you will receive 11.45 Rand for a Euro, that you are actually getting something closer to 9.8. What?!!! you say in horror (if you actually realise, anyway)?

And here is the thing: You can spend - as i did one afternoon – several hours traipsing around town looking at all the different rates offered, before finding the best one and going in, and it doesn't matter one jot. Nobody - NOBODY - displays the rate that you receive. What they display are the banks/bureaus rates. On top of that there is a bank fee to change the money, and then a commission rate that they take, neither of which is mentioned anywhere at all, either that it exists or what the rate is. Nobody will even tell you their commission rate until after they have played with your passport and a computer for 10minutes, which means that everybody ends up wasting lots of time.

Even if you accept this and decide to change anyway, there are potential pitfalls. I always carry a chunk of foreign currency for emergencies, and on my last day as I was low on Rand, I decided that as a bit of a safety buffer I would change a bit. I didn't want to use an ATM again (due to the fees) and figured that changing a small note would workout better, even after the commission is included. So I went to change 20USD. The official rate from xe.com would get me 150Rand, whilst most advertised rates would give me roughly 140-142. I figured that with commission and fees, i would get maybe 125-130in cash. Not a great deal, but enough to tide me over.

Not so. The minimum commission charge that I found was a whopping 80 Rand (roughly 11USD): and in one place it was 135Rand. I could have changed 20USD and got 6 Rand back – SIX RAND!!!!! - which is less than 1USD. Luckily, I ended up changing with somebody in the hostel at the rate of 150, which both of us were very happy with.

It really is very sneaky, and should not be legal. But South Africa is, I have sadly realised, not somewhere you go for fairness or morality, and really, I should not be surprised that it's banking facilities and system are significantly more backward than those of Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan. You even got a better – and fairer - deal in Zimbabwe at the height of their financial collapse.

Basically, unless you are changing very large amounts of money (and in which case they would probably report you for suspected money laundering and not allow you change money anyway) it's just not worth it, and so to all travelers to South Africa, i would say DO NOT take cash to exchange: It is the only country in the world that is guaranteed to screw you over and give you less.

If you do need money and don't want to use a card, sell heroin. Or a kidney. It is cheaper, easier, safer. And you'll get a much better rate for less paperwork.

Posted by Gelli 03:53 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world

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