Money is just an idea...

2011-07-08 12:44

Money. The American pop cult of gangster has made its zealous pursuit a sexy requirement of “cool”, just as the song goes: “No romance without finance.”

From Hollywood to Joburg, men and women stretch themselves to get more of it. It gives a sweet sheen to modern capitalism. Bling-bling! We all have to have it.

But what is money? The metal and paper symbols of value printed by the national mint?

As a determinant of wealth, money’s power, as South African scholar Mogobe Ramose once observed, is transmuted into authority to influence governments and social morality. “How much I have” supersedes “I’m a human being” and so it becomes decisive in the determination and settlement of justice in human relations.

So money talks and the rest run the marathon. I recently visited the Absa Money and Banking Museum in the Joburg CBD to rediscover the history of money. The museum has recently reopened in the West Tower after some refurbishment.

“It tells the story of our country through the history of our currency,” says curator Dr Paul Bayliss, a former zoologist turned currency expert. He says some of the exhibits – which include historical trading instruments such as cowry shells tokens, coins and a host of banknotes from across the world – were inherited when Absa was formed in 1991 through the merger of United, Volkskas, Allied and Trust banks.

Absa has, however, consistently added to the collection “to preserve this part of our country’s heritage”. Also included are banking paraphernalia such as bombed ATM machines, old teller counters, and emblems and logos from the older, pre-merger banks.

But money has had an objective existence too. As pieces of paper or coins with designs on them, we can actually talk about ugly or pretty money. The 2006 Canadian $5 bill, for instance, displays a freer approach to design. Along with a portrait of their seventh prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, the reverse shows modern children cheerfully playing hockey in the snow.

The images are not as intimidating as the US dollar, for instance, which looks formal and constantly carries portraits of dead presidents. Still, the “US dollar boasts one of the most successful designs”, Baylis contends.

The South African rand in the past carried pictures of Jan van Riebeeck’s fleet of ships: Dromedaris, Reijger and Goede Hoop. Later, his portrait was used, and has since been replaced with pictures of the Big Five, our most celebrated of wild animals.

Other forms of money in the museum are promissory notes minted by grocery shops in the Cape Colony. So the authorities were not the only ones entitled to create money, citizens had that power too – until 1921 when the Reserve Bank came into being and restricted it.

However, in 1898 then president Paul Kruger granted the extraordinary privilege of privately using the state mint to his friend, Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian-born Jew, after whom the square in the Pretoria city centre is named.

“This resulted in a set of 216 special gold tickeys which was normally minted in silver,” says Bayliss. Some of these are in Absa’s collection too.
During the Anglo-Boer War, when there weren’t enough coins to pay soldiers, a piece of parchment would be torn from their canvas clothing, get signed and stamped, then declared legal tender.

“Bricks of compressed tea were also used as money in Asia,” Bayliss explains. “Its value was determined by the strength of its flavour when put in water.” Like Africans who used brass bracelets, the Chinese also used cowry shells as a medium of exchange at about 1200 BC. At some point porcelain coins were used too, along with Gungheria copper hoards.

During the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese also used Ming knives as money. Today we talk about eBucks as virtual money, digitally exchanged over the internet. One thing’s clear: money is just an idea and can be made from whatever we as a society decide.

»The Museum on 187 Fox Street, Johannesburg, is open Monday to Friday

8.30am to 4pm and access is free. A tour guide is provided for groups


Money by numbers

»3000 BC – the first use of the word Shekel, used to refer to a specific weight of barley, in Mesopotamia
»650 BC – the first minting of coins by the Lydians, according to Herodotus
»1661 – the first printing of banknotes by Europe’s Stockholms Banco
»64% - the amount of the global currency reserve held in US dollars
»2023 – the year in which it is planned that there will be a single currency in the African Economic Community


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