How can a bank account help the unemployed?

Wizzit solves this problem by using what it calls Wizzkids, who help new subscribers sign up and show them through the system. In cases such as Johannes’, a pilot like Coetzee flies in to do the paperwork. Coetzee was invited to Elandslaagte Farm by its co-owner Marisa van der Heever. She not only wanted to give her employees access to banking, but also to reduce the hard cash in circulation, which is often a target for rural criminals. It also allows workers to save their money more easily, she says. What’s more, Coetzee was able to open accounts for her 54 workers in less than an hour.

Once a Wizzit account is open, deposits can be made electronically and transferred to other Wizzit users or to pay accounts, including such things as utilities accounts. Wizzit has a range of retailers and stores who accept payment from it, as well as Maestro debit cards and access to internet banking and ATM-based banking. ~ Receiver Magazine, Toby Shapshak

This paragraph from Toby Shapshak’s article on mobile banking and digital currency in Africa in the latest Receiver magazine inspired me to share a story of a man we met in Alexandra township, one of the most dangerous parts of Johannesburg, South Africa. Dave and I were meeting someone in connection to our project with Experientia in January and Father Nazareth (not his real name) dropped by our host’s house.

Curious to more about what we were doing, he shared with us that he was a Wizzit account holder! Naturally I offered to buy him lunch if he’d share his story with us. He painted a picture of life under apartheid – he is in his fifth decade – and his struggles both within the system and later, as a member of the militant arm of the ANC. He seemed resigned to the fate that his past as a ‘freedom fighter’ was held against him in this new South Africa, seen as a ‘trouble maker’ he was more often unemployed than not. Both he and his wife had Wizzit accounts although neither had a working phone at the moment. Nor any money in the account. But he added, the beauty of the account was that it wouldn’t expire just because no transactions had been made – it seems regular banks in South Africa cancel accounts if there has been no activity for the preceding 6 months. And opening the account had been so easy – no paychecks, proof of residence or regular income was required, just his ID and his mobile phone number.

At that point, he looked up from his pizza (he only ate half of it and planned to take the rest home with him to share the treat with his youngest children still at home) and asked me a question that led to a conversation that totally changed my perspective of him. In an instant he went from an unemployed artist and initerant preacher to a visionary with dreams of changing the quality of life in his community and instilling civic pride amongst the residents again.

How can a bank account help the unemployed, you tell me?

When I asked him what difference did having a bank account make when he had no money he talked about the sense of empowerment that comes from having this tangible symbol of being part of the mainstream establishment. Though unemployed and supporting his family through odd jobs and piecework, he was now a bank account holder! They were part of Wizzit’s community and he felt it added value to his standing in his church – he is the leader of a 1000 member church and his community. Now the question was how could this kind of bank account – easy to open and easy to own – with all the intangible benefits that having a bank account, something that seemed out of reach for the majority of the residents in Alex township become a platform for civic development. Just like the story mentioned by Shapshak above, Father Nazareth had a vision.

“If you remove temptation, “he said, “you will remove the motive for the robbers.”

Then he took his background as a trade union leader and organizer to start brainstorming around using mobile phone bank accounts and the local civic organization to work towards a community based solution for lowering crime.

Community cash deposit system to help lower crime in townships

The temptation being the cash that everyone is forced to keep or carry, including spaza shop owners, tavern owners, tuck shops and all the hair salons in the township as well as all the other residents who work infrequently or irregularly and thus do not have bank accounts. He was began talking excitedly about organizing all the shop owners together, getting them access to their own accounts with Wizzit and then organizing daily protection for collections or deposits so that there would be no money at the end of the day in cash form that can be easily robbed or stolen.

He could see the potential for lowered crime rates if every earner in the township could have an account and even they went out to do some piece work for daily wages, they could deposit the money before walking home from the train or bus (majority of robberies take place at the bus or train station at night when they know people come back from work). He began mapping out a way the old civic street and yard model of organization back in the ‘bad’ old days could be used to coordinate and manage the activities, giving people a sense of security instead of everyone having to sleep with hard cash under their mattress.

He said crime was so bad at night that if he stepped out to the corner shop at night he would carry his old phone in his pocket just for the tsotses (literally means ‘bad men’) – they’d kill him if he had nothing to give them, he added. At that point, our conversation had to end but I had a feeling that Father Nazareth had left me with insight on exactly what the real power of possessing a bank account meant to the underemployed and those at the bottom of the pyramid. In turn, he’d designed himself a concept that just might make a real difference if it can be prototyped and then scaled up across the country using the same principles of grassroots organization that they had already developed during their freedom struggle.

This article was first written in July 2008. 

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