A GREAT deal is going on in the banking sector, some of it reported, much not. That’s because, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was quoted in this newspaper as saying, the financial sector operates an "opaque" fee structure.

To underline his comment, I asked Bankserv, the organisation formed to provide a centralised interbank clearing and settlement service, to let me see its annual financial statements. The request was refused on the pathetic grounds that it is a private company.

But if you think about the huge number of transactions Bankserv must process every year, and the values attached to those, the answer must be mind-numbing.

Given that Bankserv handles credit card transactions as well as banking services, I would guess, and this is a real thumb-suck, it must run to anything between 50-million and 100-million a day. As for value, well, many multiples of the country’s total gross domestic product. No wonder "they" don’t want us to know what they know.

Try this for size. The high street banks use a device known as an "uncleared effects counter" (called the U counter). This permits a cheque deposited in an account to sit there, uncleared, for 7-10 working days before the amount is released. The delay is to give the banks time to ensure the cheque won’t bounce. Of course, in today’s world of virtually instantaneous transactions, that doesn’t hold water.

An albatross dropped by to tell me that, some years ago, he negotiated with his bank to drop the U counter provision on the basis that he had never deposited a cheque that bounced. He had a clean record.

Examining his account recently, he came across a large amount he had paid in but which hadn’t been cleared. What was this, he asked at his local branch? Branch managers, who used to know your business and you, are no longer around. The albatross was told by a smart young woman in very high heels that the bank had decided to reinstate the U counter. Without telling him? How could that be? For a bank to withdraw from a contract with a client without discussing it with him calls all manner of issues into account, ethics included. "The upshot is that I no longer trust the bank I’ve dealt with for decades."

I understand the Reserve Bank has not, contrary to rumours, asked banks to reinstate the U counter where it has been removed by mutual consent. So why is this happening, and why are banks not being transparent about their policies?

What do we want from banks? We want them to move money swiftly, with the least interruption; we want them to provide a smart, efficient and truthful service. We do not want this, "Oh, we made a mistake. But we’re okay because it’s your responsibility." Most people are prepared to pay reasonably for good service, but not extravagantly. And we don’t want banks that are forever attempting to shift the risk from themselves on to their customers.


I AM perfectly comfortable with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s position on what his statement calls the morally indefensible war on Iraq. The dictates of his conscience should be respected.

But I do not think he has been at all Christian in choosing to renounce participation in the Discovery Leadership Forum at so late a stage.

He has had months to formulate a position. It is out of character for the Arch to have left this decision so late. I expect better from an icon of the church.


THIS is World Water Week, not that anyone in this country would know about it given the dearth of media interest. We need to pay more attention, because the estimates indicate that by 2030 the world’s use of water will exceed natural renewals by 60%. The deficit is being drawn from ground water reserves. Reckon on global water shortages by 2025.

And a monster of a headache is developing in the US, where the energy department reckons it needs 9,100 litres of water to produce one litre of biodiesel.

The problem is worsened by drought and a Congress mandated commitment to devote 40% of maize production to ethanol production. That could mean a dramatic reduction in exports of maize from the US. Food prices will rocket and the poor will be hit hardest.

The temptation is to ascribe the US drought to climate change or La Nina, but neither is certain. There have been similarly dreadful droughts in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. The real problem is that what used to be saved in the national water "bank," its ground water reserves, have been drastically depleted by decades of overuse. The water overdraft facility is no longer available.

In SA, the second version of the National Water Resource Strategy has been issued. By and large, this is a clever and thoughtful work, but the devil — as always — is in the detail. The biggest problem is that water supply infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate rapidly. But there has also been a serious diminution in skills capacity.

Next is the money needed. The Department of Water Affairs reckons it needs R670bn over the next 10 years; the current funding gap is about half that — R338bn.

The bombshell is tucked away in a later chapter. It has been decided to reduce the number of catchment management agencies from 19 to nine. Good, but under the National Water Act the water resource strategy must rely on estimates of present and future water requirements, give the total quantity of water available in each area and estimate surpluses or deficits.

This can only be drawn from carefully collated and preserved statistics. But it hasn’t been done. Though the strategy has been carefully worded, presumably to mollify the political head of the ministry, it is clear that the complaint I made on June 27, to the effect that years of raw data are currently hosting the growth of mushrooms in the basement of the Council for Geoscience, has not been sorted out.

We really do need to get our act together.