Yesterday I darkened the doors of an unfamiliar bank to open a new bank account. For 19 years, I have tolerated, endured, and put up with generally indifferent service from my “legacy bank”, the institution I signed up with by default when I became an independent adult.
At best, my legacy bankers haven’t completely messed up my life; at worst, they have treated me like an unknown illegal. I have always had the sense that the other banks were just as bad, and it was a matter of “the devil you know”. So, for example, I have repeatedly resisted the temptation to join my wife as a client of a specialist (some would say elitist) private bank.
This day, on the recommendation of several people, I thought I would give another bank a chance with this business banking account.
I walked into the bank at 12:43. I was quite confident that I would make a pick-up rendez-vous at 13:30 or shortly thereafter. Such confidence was laughably misplaced. I walked out of the bank at 15:50, more than three hours later. I had run the gamut of emotions from mild irritation, to bemusement, to rising frustration; from quiet, controlled fuming, to detachment, to exhaustion and ennui.
The political parallels are remarkable if you’ll consider them.
It starts with a jaded voter/customer making a call effectively to punish the incumbent by moving to the next option. He’s heard a few good things about the other party, and has really had enough of rewarding mediocrity and malicious incompetence and indifference. Right at the beginning there’s a sense of a fresh, new beginning; even the enthusiastic welcome steward who hands out queue tickets looks like he knows what he’s doing. The customer waits in the foyer a little longer than expected (adding to the frustration of the failed online banking registration process that brought him here in the first place), but they call his number and he skips to the consultant. He’s assured that the wait is just a glitch, that he’s made the right choice today.
The selection has been made, but it’s not yet Uhuru – the service delivery challenge is great. The processing takes long: the customer hands over his ID four times to the same consultant; the banking app doesn’t work, and the Wifi is on the blink; finally, the online banking registration doesn’t work. And it still doesn’t work after being tried five times. The reason the customer is initially given is that he doesn’t yet have the relevant bank card, which will be delivered in a few days. This is fair enough, but three bank consultants seemed not to know this basic fact.
Now other arms of government are roped in to attempt to find a solution to the growing challenge of the disgruntled supporter. The obligatory call to the call centre is made – yes, from inside the bank branch. It yields little more than long waits and the banking equivalent of “Did you turn it off and on again?” Weirdly, but not surprisingly, the customer himself is the interface between the branch and the call centre, until he refuses the weirdness. Eventually the call centre agent gives up and hangs up on her colleagues.
Eventually, the “presidential hotline” seems to be the last resort. A final, herculean intellectual effort from the enthusiastic steward and first consultant, with oversight from someone who looks like the branch manager, yields a solution that includes the use of a “makeshift” card to enable account and online banking registration. As it turns out, it wasn’t quite presidential: in the end, it’s just a couple of committed worker bees who deliver, despite the system. The branch manager-type is in fact just a curious product manager, who, amazingly, is so immune to embarrassment that he tries, in this moment, to sell me a personal banking account.
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The 2019 national election is just hours away for most South Africans. Of course, the banking analogy for voting breaks down at least at a couple of critical points. It’s unlikely that any bank has the historical gravitas of some political formations, and unlike a bank selection clearly the choice of the majority is imposed on everyone as the governance “service provider”. Nevertheless, my recent bank experience has given me a renewed appreciation for the dilemma many people find themselves facing. Changing my vote from one party to another is in many ways like changing my bank from, say, the green one to the blue one (or the red one). I might have suffered many years, remaining loyal despite exploitation and betrayal, but how can I know that I’ll have any better experience “across the road”, so to speak? Both changing and staying put have got their logical and psychological rationales, and the decision for an individual is multiplex, with its elements being weighted and layered differently by each person. It seems to me that appreciating this is the work of mature empathy. Is the shame and awfulness of known failings, defiled intimacy, and familiar abuse really definitively worse than the terrifying uncertainty of departure, escape into the unknown, and the challenge of reconstructing a life and identity and social place, possibly with no assistance, maybe even with the burden of “I-told-you-so” taunts and other humiliations? Just as it is in the sphere of domestic abuse, so it is in the political sphere: it’s easy to sit in haughty detached judgement, and even if the answers seem easy [which they shouldn’t be], they are not soft.
So what do we do with all this? After a period of recovery from minor trauma, and of further contemplation, I will consider re-engaging both my old and my new bank. In my own small ways, I will ask them how they consider themselves to be making their customers’ lives easier and better (and wealthier). In the absence of opportunities for direct engagement, I may tackle them online and on social media – that’s where everyone is these days. I’ll ask them bold, cheesy questions: How can you really help me? Do you know what moving me forward looks like? So what if you can see money differently? Bright loud colours aside, can you present a clear demonstration of Africanacity? I shall assure them that I owe permanent allegiance to none of them. Most of all, I’ll challenge them to do what those two bureaucrats did: persist, keep at it, do not give up trying to get it right. For in the end, we all mess up sometime, and so we all need to give grace and get grace. Only in the light of grace will we be able to go beyond simply tolerating one another, and only with grace will we enable one another’s better selves by relating to each other truthfully, yet hopefully.