Banking in the bundu

2008-11-14 00:00

Heidi Steyn

The sight of Zimbabwe’s beleaguered citizens lugging bag-loads of cash to the supermarkets in exchange for a few meagre essentials, triggered in me a memory that, although it differs somewhat in context, is poignantly similar.

In the mid-eighties, I was employed as a teller by one of the major financial institutions that operated a small, two-man agency in what was then a very rural Hammarsdale.

Although my experience of what was nicknamed the “bundu branch” was brief, it left a lasting impression.

Accustomed to working in the air-conditioned comfort of a modern building in town, the bank premises in Hammarsdale were akin to those featured in old cowboy and Western movies, complete with dusty road frontage and a cast-iron hitching post for horses.

Adding to the vintage charm of the place, the tellers were ensconced behind a polished mahogany counter, topped by a barrier of ornate, wrought-iron bars.

The clientele were, therefore, not obliged to holler at the staff through two inches of bulletproof glass, negotiate their way around dizzying revolving doors or be frisked by a wand-wielding security guard. Of course, nor were they treated to air conditioning, plush seating or a television to watch while they stood in the queue.

By way of added security, the agency manager, who also doubled as a teller, was in possession of a rather dubious-looking 38 Special and had even more dubious shooting skills. Fortunately, during my short tenure, neither were called upon to render protection.

The small banking hall could accommodate about 40 people comfortably, 60 uncomfortably and, as I was soon to discover, many more at a push.

The journey to and from Hammarsdale was undertaken in the sauna-like confines of a windowless cash-in-transit van, where the seating arrangements consisted of two giant metal boxes containing cash and coins for the day’s business.

Because the bank only opened between 9 am and noon three days a week, an eager welcoming committee was usually assembled outside on our arrival.

At month-end, however, when there were wage cheques to be cashed, a vast throng snaked across the forecourt and down the street. This comprised mainly workers from the big textile mills and those employed by the local chicken farm. The pace of business was agonisingly slow as each customer secreted their money in various locations about their person before leaving the counter.

Nevertheless, for the first hour or so a carnival atmosphere prevailed and no one attempted to muscle their way to the front. But, as closing time approached and the queue still disappeared out of sight into the dusty haze, social niceties began to wane as collecting one’s wages became the imperative.

The understanding was that anybody inside the banking hall at closing time would be served and those outside would have to return another day. A rule, incidentally, that was never enforced because everyone made sure they were inside.

Although we had no security guard, an intrepid fellow by the name of Elliot was employed as cleaner, tea maker and unofficial negotiator. Together with his invaluable assistance as translator, Elliot also had the unenviable task of rounding up the stragglers at closing time, cramming them into the banking hall and locking the door.

On the particular day in question though, we had bigger problems than even Elliot was prepared to face. By 11 am it became alarmingly apparent that we were going to run out of cash. We had heaps of coins, but the thought of offering the workers their wages in 50 cent pieces was not appealing.

The agency manager implored an unenthusiastic Elliot to explain the regrettable situation to the crowd, as tactfully as possible.

“Eish!” squawked Elliot, with a look of pure terror, “you tell them.”

Fortunately, one brave chap, who’d finally reached the counter, overheard the exchange and having secured his money inside his gumboots, did the honours. A low rumble emitted from the queue causing Elliot to seek asylum in the vault. By 11.30 am we were completely out of notes.

I never imagined Jan van Riebeeck’s ugly mug could be so missed as the stash of 50 cent pieces began to look more and more attractive. But, as long as money was forthcoming, in whatever form, full-scale mutiny was averted, although the hum in the banking hall rose to a deafening crescendo. Elliot was finally coaxed from his safe haven and persuaded to close the doors, leaving at least 60 workers crammed inside, all expecting to be paid. I can still picture the last man staggering out almost two hours later, grinning from ear to ear as if he’d won the jackpot and clutching four canvas bags full of five and 10 cent pieces.

They amounted to barely R300 — his monthly wages.

Heidi Steyn

HEIDI Steyn was born in 1964 in Buckinghamshire, England, and immigrated to South Africa with her parents in the mid-seventies.

Following 14 years working in the commercial banking sector, Steyn stepped down from the corporate ladder in 1997.

Steyn has lived in Pietermaritzburg for almost 17 years and is a freelance writer and full-time housewife.

Countdown to November 22

There is just one week to go until the winners of our True Stories of KZN competiton are announced. Who will they be?

Those in the running for the R10 000 prize in the Open category are Jeff Guy, Tim Houghton, Bertus Appel, Thokoza Radebe, Su Hennessy, OkaMfoMkhulu*, Jenny Roberts, Darryl Earl David, Symphrose Temu and Derek Alberts.

In the Snapshot category Mary F*, Heidi Steyn, Leanne Talbot Nowell and Val Ward are competing for the R2 000 prize.

The remaining three finalists’ stories will be published before the winners are announced on November 22. If you’ve missed any finalists’ stories so far you can read them on our website at www.witness.co.za (click on the True Stories icon).

After the winners are announced we’ll be publishing an impressive selection of semi-finalists’ stories.

* Not their real names.

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