6 December 2006
The number of South Africans with a bank account rose by around 1.5-million between 2005 and 2006, reaching a total of 15.9-million people or 51% of the country’s 31.1-million adults (people over the age of 16).
And the entry-level Mzansi bank account, introduced in 2004 to offer an easy-to-use and affordable banking solution for “the unbanked” in South Africa, has proved “undoubtedly a success”.
That’s according to FinMark Trust’s FinScope SA 2006, an annual national household survey of financial services, needs and usage among South Africans.
According to the survey, released this week, South Africa’s banked population increased by 11% between 2005 and 2006, far outstripping the 1% population growth in the same period.
However, the ability of the banking sector to draw in the other half of the population will depend, ultimately, not on provision of easier or cheaper access, or better financial education, but on fundamental changes in the economic realities of the country.
Mzansi: ‘impressive uptake’
South Africa’s financial sector charter, signed in October 2003, commits the country’s financial institutions to extending first-order retail banking products to 80% of South Africans in the lowest income bracket (LSM 1-5) by 2008.
According to FinScope, South Africa’s low-cost bank account, Mzansi – introduced with these lower-income customers in mind – claimed the lion’s share of new banking customers over the last year.
The percentage of South Africans holding an Mzansi account rose from 2% in 2005 to 6% in 2006 – a staggering growth of around 250%. In the same period, the percentage of the banked population using Mzansi grew fourfold, from 3% to 12%.
Claimed Mzansi account holders are nearing the 2-million mark, the survey finds, noting that this might be an under-reading of Mzansi’s actual size: the Banking Association SA reported that 3.3-million Mzansi accounts had been opened by June.
FinScope says this discrepancy “could be because many users of Mzansi do not actually realise the type of account they hold. For example, PostBank account holders were all switched to Mzansi accounts.”
Most importantly, according to the survey, Mzansi has been successful at drawing previously unbanked people into the banking sector, not solely causing account switching among the already banked.
“Sixty percent of people holding a Mzansi account claim this to be their first bank account, an encouraging indicator that the product is being adopted by its core target market.”
The financial divide persists
However, while the drive to bring more South Africans into the banking system appears to be working – and despite strong indicators that uptake of the Mzansi account will continue to grow – the financial divide between rich and poor in the country will, if it persists, sooner or later put the brakes on this growth.
According to the survey, investment and even saving money is still uncommon among South Africans – and so is borrowing – with unemployment and lack of money to save being the two main reasons given for not being banked.
“Where people do borrow, they do so mainly to buy food, pay for funerals, school fees or medical expenses. The reason is clearly the degree of poverty: 17% of South African say they have no income at all, and nearly one-third of South Africans testify that they do not even have enough to eat.”
That over one-third of people (35%) who know about Mzansi still consider the account unaffordable “highlights the real barrier to entry that bank charges pose, no matter how low,” the survey finds.
For “a great proportion of our population,” any sort of banking product is unaffordable – and, as things stand, probably unnecessary.
“As such, unless the economic realities of our country change fundamentally, the Mzansi account is likely to reach a ceiling in terms of what it can realistically achieve.”