A lesson to be learnt

2011-01-13 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL Natal MEC for Finance Ina Cronjé was a busy woman over the holiday season. She was crisscrossing the province preaching financial literacy­.

For most of us who earn rather than pay salaries, January is always that month when we wished Cronjé had hosted her workshops earlier and that we had attended them just so that we can navigate this long month better.

At a workshop in the capital city in December, Cronjé spoke glowingly of an example of an elderly couple, the Ngcobos, whom she had met the previous day in Kranskop where she had gone to preach her gospel.

The couple had spent their productive years as menial labourers, but had managed to save enough money to build their house, add extra rooms, which they had let to tenants for extra income, and educate their children.

What was more impressive about the couple was that they had very little education and had saved their money under a mattress in their bedroom. Despite all they had done and achieved, the couple had gone to hear Cronjé­ talk about financial literacy initiatives which her office was spreading across the province.

South African history and demographics­ show that the Ngcobos­ are not a unique entity. The vast majority of South Africans­ are black workers or peasants. This further translates into the vast majority of the educated South Africans having been raised by this class of people — which partly explains the ululations and excitement you hear at graduation ceremonies as another­ child of gardeners and washerwomen makes their parents' toil worth the while.

From where I am seated, the Ngcobos have a lot to teach us about financial literacy and of ways of reducing our indebtedness or low savings-to-earning ration­ as a nation.

They have a message for all who cannot wait for our first salary of 2011.

Their exemplary lifestyle is at odds with the consumerist culture in our country. The finger is often pointed at the new blackoisie (black bourgeoisie) for their taste in whiskies whose ages are apparently important to their drinkers, fast German-designed cars, high-collared shirts and sharply pointed shoes.

Having bought into that insulting marketing and advertising industry construct of black diamonds, this class has been made to believe that their worth is to be measured by what they consume. The black diamonds are the collective emperor in that Hans Christian Anderson fable of the monarch who was so vain that he was fleeced into parting with a fortune rather than admit that he did not know what he was being sold.

Older-money folk are not any better. The Christmas season proves that all of us are materialistic. In the same way that some in the emerging black middle class has identified the items mentioned here as badges of success, older-money folk have bought into the lie that material stuff defines how much they love or are loved.

This is why many would rather sink into debt than forsake that holiday in Thailand paid for with their credit cards. It should be patently ridiculous to them to suggest that a diamond is a girl's best friend. Why should a girl's best friend be an expensive gem? But it is, and has been, for generations, without too much question.

If you believe that a diamond is essential for human happiness then you must accept the same for drinking a single malt whisky.

It is therefore neither to the old money or new that we should look for financial education. It is to the wretched of the Earth, such as the Ngcobos, who have an insatiable appetite for learning.

If more of us were like them, we would not be such an indebted nation, and­ neither would our Januaries­ be as long as they are.

According to a report at the end of last year published in FANews, a financial and advisory news and information portal, "the number of South Africans with records of good credit standing has declined in the past three years. Only 54% of 18,21 million credit-active South Africans are in good credit standing today.

"In June, 2007, more than 63% of consumers held credit records of good standing. Impaired credit records increased to more than 25% in the first quarter of 2010 and 17,2% of all credit-active South Africans hold accounts today that are more than three months in arrears."

The historical exclusion of people­ like the Ngcobos has, in the end, done them some good. They have learnt to live within their means instead of hoping that their bank manager will make a plan.

They may not become the wealthiest couple in their town, but they are an example of what frugality and hard work can achieve. And because they are not black diamonds or worried that Mr Ngcobo has not been able to afford a girl's best friend for his partner, they are happier than many of us and their example can be a lesson for many more of us.

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