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New complementary currency brings out trading talents of locals

Published Oct 30, 2006


Cometh the hour, cometh the complementary currency. When apparently logical man-made systems create obviously unnecessary suffering, people can sometimes take a step back, spot the defect and correct it, starting at the local level. So it is with the money system.

Currently it is clearly cruel and dangerous, leaving millions of people out, while trillions in money are hoarded and unstable bubbles of "derived" money, debt and "passive income" streams abound.

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A few weeks ago, local expert Tim Jenkin represented new South African thinking at a conference in Weimar, Germany, in a paper titled "Local Currencies as Catalysts for Endogenous Regional Development". Jenkin is the designer of a radical currency introduced by the SA New Economics (Sane) network.

This is not the first era to spawn new ways for people to trade. The 1930s had some of the same characteristics as today and since then complementary currencies have arisen worldwide to remind us what money is for and highlight the dangers of the present system.

The supply of money enables us to trade with one another. Without it, we would have to barter - severely limiting when it comes to things such as paying for, say, car services with poems. Money enables each to be valued independently. Money has no value in itself. When we treat it as a commodity we get into deep trouble.

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South Africa has one of the most sophisticated systems of trading through complementary currencies in the world. While others are limited to local communities and local exchange trading systems, ours is national and even international, as it is on the internet. In South Africa it is called the Talent Exchange.

Talents are traded in Cape Town between about 2 000 members. Worldwide there are about 6 700 members in 50 groups living in eight countries. Each can trade with the others, even though other countries name their currency differently.

Talents are valued roughly equivalent to the national currency. Since 2003, when the system was set up, about 2.5 million talents have been traded, which is equivalent to R2 500 000. You can join by going to the community exchange system on

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Think about the rand. The first thing you notice is that some people don't have any. So they cannot buy anything even though they are willing and able to work at things that other people need. Mandla is a case in point. He is a mechanic. People need his skills but they can't pay him as they have no money.

Complementary currencies connect need with supply. Unlike national currencies, they come into existence when - and only when - there is a trade recorded on the system. Anyone who is able to offer something that other people want can have access to the goods and services that other people make.

Complementary currencies run no risk of inflation or deflation, there is no such thing as too much or too little money, because the supply arises only from trading. Money is not used as a commodity in itself - to be lent and borrowed and kept out of use.

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By contrast, the supply of national currencies everywhere comes into existence as a commercial debt to a bank, without reference to whether or not that extra money is needed to match the supply of goods and services. National currencies are endemically cyclical - inflationary or deflationary.

The talent exchange operates like a bank but more rationally and more transparently since each person's account can be seen by everyone else. You can "borrow" from it by going into deficit in your account and you can hold reserves in it by going into credit. Interest is not involved. If your deficit gets too deep, members will not sell to you until you recover; if you stay in credit too long you are asked to start spending to keep the system lively.

There is hardly any cost to this "bank". A small transaction tax in talents pays for the time of the organisers. This "money" is not a commodity with a price tag or the source of the profit, let alone passive income. Offers of talents to people in need constitute the system's version of charity.

On the Talent Exchange you can get a holiday cottage, your car serviced, compost, any number of health services, staff training of all kinds, office and home furniture, books, accountancy and computer services, gardening, home cleaning and repairs, you name it. Regular monthly trading days enable display of wares and communal activities. A network of talent depots is being established. There is also an overlap into the rand economy.

The most exciting current development is the likelihood that a national supermarket chain will join the system. That would widen the value of possible transactions, creating a genuine and benign alternative to the debt-laden rand system.

The greatest challenge is, ironically, to get trading going within the very poor areas, where it is most needed. Access to the internet can be a problem; but Sane is developing a network of community workers equipped with laptops. The problem is partly that the most pressing need is for food, which has so far not been available in the poor areas for talents. That will change if the supermarket comes on board, and if people grow food for sale in talents.

- Margaret Legum is the chairperson of the SA New Economics Network

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