In the mid-’90s, in the first flush of democracy, I saw people get new brick houses in Kimberley, the first in their lives, and then almost just as quickly face losing them because the municipality had provided water and lights on account. The result was as predictable as it was horrific.
But it’s not just the poorer end of society that’s at risk - the middle class is as much in danger, with perhaps even more to lose.
The National Credit Act did a lot to stop the predatory lending of banks and microlenders that were becoming as bad as the mashonisas, protecting us from the sub-prime crisis that almost pushed North America, Europe, Asia and every other point in between over the edge of the financial abyss. But we aren’t out of the woods; far from it.
Credit is an appalling thing, but even more so because it is so seductive, providing an instant fix for the millennial cravings for instant gratification.
It’s one thing getting into hock for a house, which will appreciate in value over time, because shelter is a basic human need. It’s one thing signing your life away for five years or more for a car, even if it does start depreciating the moment the wheels leave the showroom floor, because you can use it to make money - like getting to work.
Then there are other reasons for credit, like further education, that are also defensible. But food?
It’s problematic, especially if you start buying liquor and cigarettes, which Pick n Pay does sell - you literally could end up with nothing to show, only the bill and the prospect of paying more for something you might have enjoyed six weeks before.
But before we hammer Pick n Pay, why are we not looking at others already doing exactly this, albeit in a roundabout fashion?
There are upmarket clothing stores whose account cards allow you to skip past the clothing racks and go straight into the supermarket. Hell, I know of people who applied for accounts for exactly that reason - eating upmarket at month end, when the rest of us are on dry crackers.
What about the traditional money lenders and their credit cards? I have two: one from before the implementation of the National Credit Act, that I was cold canvassed for over the phone and that was delivered to the front door of the office two days later; and another from after the implementation of the act, also cold-canvassed telephonically.
I received it a couple of months ago, on the basis - wait for it - of an account I had held with this particular bank when I was at university and closed shortly after starting my first job. Their zealous sales people managed to track me down and offer me the card. Bizarrely, I had to fight for a lower credit limit.
I once maxed out my other credit card and eventually used a windfall to pay it off. I was phoned the next day by the self-same people wanting to increase my credit limit.
These were the people who had been hounding me to make my minimum monthly payments when I had almost bent the card into origami from overuse.
Credit is insidious. It takes incredible discipline to manage, which, to be brutally honest, I don’t always have. And marketers prey on people like me, extolling the virtues of these cards, for exactly those spontaneous (and hideously irresponsible) types of purchases.
The greatest protection for us has been the National Credit Act and the National Credit Regulator.
If this week’s row over Pick n Pay has achieved anything, it’s probably got the scheme’s architects to walk gingerly through this ethical minefield they have found themselves in, becoming very focused about the potential pitfalls and consequences of easy credit morphing into a mass of festering debt and making January 2018 a Janu-worry to remember for a lot longer.
In that case, they’re already well ahead of the game and we’re actually all the better off for it, ironically.
Credit is a reality; credit for goods that shouldn’t really be bought on the never-never is a more philosophical debate that’s not resolved by banning it but rather properly regulating the lenders and protecting the borrowers - uniformly, across the entire sector.
The proper checks and balances need to be performed, there has to be due diligence done on potential borrowers.
But here’s a thing: if someone actually gets credit from a supermarket chain like this, rather than the spaza shop at the end of the road, and manages to build up a good credit history which might be used to leverage bigger lenders to give them money to buy a house or a car, is this such a bad thing?
We have to be careful of becoming a nanny state, just because it fits our prejudices.