Pretty new banknotes won't save our economy

One of the most exciting things to happen to me during the last week or so, was the gradual discovery of more and more of South Africa's brand new bank notes in my wallet.

Aesthetically, these notes are very pleasing. They look pretty, they are streamlined and colourful without being too gaudy, and they feel good to handle. They make me feel as if I'm living in a more modern country. Compared to these notes, the old ones seem clumsy and unwieldy.

The last time I felt this way was when I travelled in Europe years ago and was handed my first batch of Euros. How I loved those notes! They were more than just pretty; they spoke of a confident new era in continental economics.

They symbolised a new era in which travel through the northern countries would be easier, less cumbersome, without all those complicated border posts and visas.

Fallen from grace

Alas! How the euro has fallen from grace. No matter how well-designed those notes were, they failed to do the job they were meant to do. They failed to unite Europe. The euro has become a currency dogged by controversy, tainted with embarrassment, haunted by failure.

It is my greatest fear that the same will happen to the newly printed South African money. Is the pretty exterior of these new notes trying to hide those fault-lines and cracks in our society which we have all been trying to ignore until now?

It is awkward to read in the press how many economic thinkers, according to themselves, had "seen the European crisis coming". Yet I don't recall reading many pessimistic forecasts back then. Yet an alarming number of columnists and wizards are playing the "I-told-you-so" game, not only in relation to Europe's woes, but in relation to the decline of Western capitalism on the whole.

If the reasons for the crunch are that obvious to everyone now, why did so many people fail to read the signs?


As I drove past the turnoff to Marikana on my way to a concert in Rustenburg last week, my wallet bulging with brand-new bank notes, I could not help feeling engulfed by a sense of dread.

We all hated the lone messengers of doom who were brave enough to warn us of the looming labour unrest to come.

Let's be honest; we hated Malema, not just because of his buffoonery and his expensive wristwatch, but because he was trying to focus our attention to the time-bomb South Africa had been sitting on all along.

Now, with the widespread mining unrest and countrywide wage dissatisfaction an established fact, we realise it was never just about Malema, was it? Of course, the solution to the problem is certainly not as simple as brute nationalisation, as he claimed. But then, what IS the solution? And why did we fail to heed his warnings?

No more quick fixes

As chief executive of the Public Investment Corporation, Elias Masilele, warned recently (I quote from a story on the front page of the Business Report section in the Sunday Independent): "we must avoid slipping into an Arab-spring-type environment… the PIC cannot invest this country out of trouble."

Indeed; the time for quick fixes is over.

And, as the scenario in Europe and America is proving, bail-out packages, whether to companies or to countries as a whole, is apparently not enough to solve the real problems at grass-roots level.

As I slowed down at the toll-gate on the N4 to open my wallet and pay my way through the Marikana Plaza, I noticed a number of young black men with packed suitcases hitching in the opposite direction. Were those mineworkers who had been laid off? Had they given up? Or were they just trying to get away for the weekend?

Whatever their mission, why could they not afford a rented car like me? Why is the divide between rich and poor such a vast gaping canyon in this country?

Whatever the cause of our collective misery, the new banknotes, as pretty as they might be, will not be enough to pull us out of this quagmire.
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