Establishing myself in a new country will require some pretty big decisions in the weeks to come. Today my goal was considerably more limited. I brought some money in U.S. dollars (USD) to start a bank account, but I needed those converted to South African rand (ZAR) to be able to buy anything with them. Sadly, starting a bank account is considerably more complicated than arriving at a branch, plunking down cash and a passport, and signing a couple of forms. Today my bank visit was limited to changing currencies.
When I arrived at the bank, I expected to be in and out in five minutes. Immediately at the entrance, though, I realized that banking is different in this country. Someone was entering the bank in front of me, and I had to wait until she was completely inside before the entrance door showed a green light. I walked into a one-person airlock. When the door behind me had closed, the one in front of me displayed a green light. Now I could enter the lobby.
After waiting in line for about a minute, I was waved up to a teller. His terminal wasn’t prepared for international exchanges, though, and I was passed down to the first window. I explained that I wanted to exchange dollars for rand. “No problem,” she replied, and she asked how much I wanted to exchange. I decided to trade all $500 that I had brought to seed the new bank account, since the process seemed somewhat involved. She asked for my passport and began setting up the exchange. After two or three minutes, she noted that the exchange rate would be 13.8882 (compare that to 14.05 on-line). In addition, the bank would charge a commission of 116.65 rand ($8.40 at the exchange rate they offered). I agreed to the terms.
A pause developed and lengthened as she frowned at the computer. She let me know that a hold had been placed on the transaction. She called to a manager, who stared at the screen for a moment and then walked to the back office. The manager called to clear the hold. With that, the teller printed some forms and passed a page to me for my signature.
When she began counting bills out for the payment, I was a bit flabbergasted. The largest currency bill that is in circulation in South Africa is a 200 rand note (around $15.00). As a result, the stack of currency she handed back was rather thicker than the one with which I had arrived. The photo accompanying this article shows four different colorful denominations of their currency. All feature Nelson Mandela on the face, but the opposite side differs in its art. The entire process from arrival to exit lasted approximately twenty minutes.
With money in hand, I passed to the mall food court to acquire some lunch.