Parasitic banks, unscrupulous credit providers and their leech-like attorneys, spawned by an obscenely bloated capitalist system, suck the life-blood from increasingly impoverished lower classes in South Africa with utter impunity. Some 11 million over-indebted people are victims of this economic violence
I first met - let’s call her Rosie - in 2010. She had an 18-year-old daughter, we will call her Zoe, who had been raped repeatedly by her biological father from the age of four, the trauma of which had left her with uncontrolled seizures, severe depression, other serious psychological disorders and HIV infection. Zoe lived far away from her mom so she could be close to a school and clinic. Every month, Rosie would send home most of her R1200 weekly salary to support Zoe and her grandmother who was at the time receiving treatment for MDR TB and was also HIV positive. After Zoe was diagnosed and began antiretroviral treatment, her mental and physical health improved significantly as did her school marks.
Life was very difficult for Rosie who also supported two other children and her salary did not keep pace with basic living expenses. The cost of commuting most weekends to check on Zoe and her granny became unaffordable and over time, Rosie ended up taking three small loans, totaling just under R40,000 from Standard Bank in order to feed her family.
At first, Rosie managed the monthly repayments by working extra shifts at the small factory where she was employed. But when the factory put most workers on ‘short time’, life for Rosie and her family quickly unraveled.
Rosie is the second wife of a factory worker. Although he did his best to support Rosie and her children, who were not biologically his, money was also needed to support his rural family. When Rosie’s husband was also put on ‘short time’, the wheels fell off.
No longer able to afford the interest-bloated monthly loan repayments, Rosie quickly fell into arrears. Standard Bank added to the family’s rapidly escalating socioeconomic misery by attaching debit orders to Rosie’s account for the full amount of her weekly salary. Standard Bank did not approach Rosie for authorization or even consult her when activating the debit orders; they merely cleared her account like a 419 scammer.
Rosie was unaware the Consumer Protection Act and other legislation that deems such practices illegal and for six months was unable to feed, clothe, visit, or even telephone her daughter. Zoe and her granny’s health deteriorated rapidly. As everyone knows, good nutrition is vital for HIV-positive people, especially when on ARV treatment. Zoe’s weight dropped to 35 kg and she was hospitalized twice.
Rosie says things are improving as she has repaid the bulk of her debt and is relieved Standard Bank now only takes around 60 percent of her weekly salary instead of everything. She hopes Zoe and her granny will make it. Her brother is also trying to help the family although he is unemployed.
Rosie cannot take this matter to court because her employer will not pay her for time taken off to seek legal aid. So she must simply accept her family is just another of the 11 million over-indebted South Africans who are victims of economic violence. If Zoe dies, Standard Bank will, in effect, have her blood on their hands, but few will connect the dots between current economic and political systems that entrench such murderous exploitation.
Parasitic banks, unscrupulous credit providers and their leech-like attorneys, spawned by an obscenely bloated capitalist system, suck the life-blood from increasingly impoverished lower classes. The extreme distress induced by these practices was manifested most spectacularly in 2012, when thousands of desperate, poorly paid, over-indebted Marikana mineworkers, while striking for a R12 500 per month living wage, refused to back down and chose to face cop bullets in a last stand bid to escape the suffocating squeeze of the omashonisa (money lenders). Debt for the Marikana mineworkers, indeed for an increasing number of South Africans, has literally become life threatening.
Reckless lending, irrational interest rates that, over time, fantastically inflate the sum of the original loan, strong-arm debt recovery tactics such as threats of legal action and telephone harassment, and general disregard for the law – as can be seen in Rosie’s case - indicate the criminal predisposition of Big Banking. These practices and their results, threaten to undermine every level of society and aspect of our lives – from environmental health, as seen in the World Bank’s continued finance for dirty energy projects such as the Medupi power plant; to furthering gender inequality, in Swaziland’s recent loan for a ‘virginity stipend’ supposedly to fight HIV infections among young girls; to the proliferation of crime and social decay – the dirty hands of Big Banking may be found lurking in the background.
Many of the 11 million affected South Africans can confirm that the big banks’ well-documented avoidance of consumer protection legislation such as the National Credit Act, the Just Administration Act and Consumer Protection Act, often leads to gross constitutional and human rights violations. In worst-case scenarios such as the Marikana tragedy and Zoe’s instance, these violations would appear to constitute, if not attempted murder, then at least extreme economic violence.
Despite South African Communist Party's head comrade Blade Nzimande's tired rhetoric at the recent "Red October" 2014 launch, parliamentary posturing of the as yet unproven Economic Freedom Fighters' fancy dressers, and the breathless promises made on mainly middle-class (mainly white) NGO websites such as the New Era, real challengers to South Africa's abusive economic regime have yet to emerge.
Is it not time such abuse of financial power was combated in the manner best suited to those who value human life as secondary to the enrichment of the already rich – by hitting them in their pockets? Is it not time to pit the power of the people against the pull of the rand and implement economic sanctions against big banking by calling for mass debt default? The financial sector would do well to consider its tenuous hold over the rage, frustration and desperation of the masses it currently enslaves. Its power cannot last. We cannot afford to let it.
* Vanessa Burger is a Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, a provincial member of the Democratic Left Front and Right2Know Campaign and works closely with organisations such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, uBunye Bamahostel, the Poor Flat Dwellers Movement and the KZN Violence Monitor.
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