I knew it would happen soon. The government suddenly talking in trillions of rands. Thirty years ago it spoke only in millions. Nowadays, of course, a million is nothing.
Small time officials and politicians are stealing millions all the time – even tens of millions.
A few years ago, the government began talking in billions. Gautrain cost R34 billion last time I heard. Joburg’s municipal budget passed R30bn. But now, as I say, we have slipped into talking of projects costing trillions.
Last month, the government decided to spend R3 trillion on municipalities throughout South Africa which, from the largest to the smallest, have not been doing terribly well with billions. Look at Joburg with its annual R30bn – it can’t even afford somebody to fix traffic lights.
A reader, Ahmed Sibda, sent me some thoughts on politicians and their latter day sense of monetary values.
He says the next time you hear a politician using the word “billion” in a casual manner “think about whether you want that politician spending your tax money”.
A billion is a difficult number for the average person to comprehend.
I mentioned a few years ago a school teacher trying to help her class comprehend a million. She asked them to bring bottle caps to school. She screened off a corner and the children each day tossed the bottle caps into the enclosure keeping a meticulous count as they did so.
As I recall they failed to accumulate a million, but the lesson was learned.
But a billion?
An American advertising agency put a billion into some perspective.
a. A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
b. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
c. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
d. A billion days ago no humans existed.
But in 2009, a billion dollars was being spent by the US government every eight hours and 20 minutes.
Following the New Orleans flood disaster, a Louisiana Democrat asked Congress for $250bn (R2 trillion) to repair the city. It would have meant each of New Orleans’ 484 674 residents getting $516 528 – almost R4 million for every man, woman and child.
Daily we read of two-bit South African politicians and officials stealing (or misappropriating) millions of rands and I wonder if anybody has yet managed to filch a R1bn.
How can one visualise a billion?
Imagine stacking up R200 notes until they were the height of your seat (50cm). That’s R1m. Now a billion in South Africa is 1 000 million. So that would stack up half a kilometre high.
And a trillion? In the US, a trillion is 1 followed by 12 zeros (1 000 000 000 000). In Britain it is 1 followed by 18 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000). Isn’t that a billion million? Whatever – we are beginning to talk real money.
I wonder how many in our government can comprehend how much that is?
If you were to stack a trillion rands in R200 notes it would reach 500km high – way above the height at which most satellites cruise. Look, I might be a bit out, but what’s a few million anyway?
LETTER TO THE STOEP
I have a thought for your readers: when I’m having a bad day and it seems people are trying to wind me up, I tell myself it takes 42 muscles to frown, 28 to smile and only four to extend my arm and smack ’em in the mouth!