ZA Currancy: Bills

The first thing any American notices about going to a new country is how pretty their money is, and how bland our monotone paper bills are (although it's improving). South Africa (shortened RSA or ZA) is no exception.

The largest bill in ZA is the 200 Rand (R) bill, and is monetarily equivalent to about 26 US Dollars, but culturally equal to a $100 bill: seldom used, and not an amount you carry in your wallet on a daily basis. But their 100 R is like our $20 bill: what most ATMs give out, and thus the most commonly used bill.

There is so much intention in the bills' designs though. The pictures are not of presidents or people (something that you can bet would be contentious), but of the big five game animals, something that represents the country's natural heritage, and also what is a backbone of the continuing tourist economy, something everyone in the country has in common, to enjoy and protect. They seem to be ordered by power (Lion > Elephant > Rhino), population size (Buffalo > ...), and unsurpassed prowess (Leopard being ultimate). 

Also, when you stack them 10 down to 200, the larger bill amounts are longer, and you can (imperfectly) see the amount of each one on the right side line up so all are visable. Also, English is on the front of all bills, but two other languages are featured on the back of each bill (showing off all 11 official languages in total).

Along with the main facial profile of the animal, there is a watermark of it on the left side; a mirror image. The fronts also include scenes of these animals in their native habitats, putting a context for seeing them in the wild, and also what places we need to protect to do so? On the 50 R, we see the only specific depiction of an animal and place. Here female lions drink from a watering hole. The background in not a generic savannah fill-in like the other bills, but a very specific part of the southern African bushveld. Along the Limpopo River, there is a region that is home to the Baobab tree (the fat one in the background). This area is a savannah, hot and dry, at the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is protected in part by Mapungubwe NP and is known for these iconic trees, and with many being ancient (over 1,000 years old), their protection from use as firewood is essential.  Similarly,  these animals are also dependent on humans acting in preservation since two of them are large predators that need large tracts of undeveloped land to thrive, and others that are either destructive or under high threat of poaching, requiring management (elephants) and vigilant protection (rhinoceros).

The other pictorial themes on the back of the bills celebrate the national identity of South Africa. Scenes images of bridges and antennas (200 R, skilled engineering and technology), zebra below mountains (100 R, South Africa has an abundance of mountain ranges and game reserves for hunting), oil refineries with figures of atoms (50 R, excelling in Africa for international trade and science), mining (20 R, ZA has the richest deposits of platinum in the world, and famously mines diamonds and gold). 

The most cohesive pictorial story comes off of the 10 R. It shows agrarian life in ZA. The wind mill is the first tip off. The oxen is the lynch pin. Oxen pulled plows in farmer's fields for a great part of ZA's history and the wind mill either pulled water from a well or milled grain. It could be the Northern Cape or Limpopo, but is without doubt semiarid (abundant grasses), highveld or bushveld. You can feel the unabated sun in the tree-less scene with fast-stirring winds a moderate respite. It brings to mind the Afrikaaners who settled the difficult climates of ZA's interior and made them productive farms and ranches, seeking freedom from the colonial claws of England, mostly residing along the coast. It also pictures some kind of sheep, maybe Dorset, in the sky. While sheep would have also been apart of this agrarian life, it's floating head makes it into a specter, possibly reminding us of the pastoral life tribal Africans would have led before the Voortrekkers pushed through, and which is still a strong cultural identity of the people of Lesotho. To an American's eyes, it makes me think of Big Horn sheep, and displacement of the wildest of animals that agriculture brings, but also the possibility of balance between farming and conservation.

While most of our currency is about government, its history (the presidents), its symbolic power (the Free Mason images, Lincoln Memorial), and its centers (the White House, the Capital), South Africa's is about defining a country that needs to see--everyday, tangibly--its common identity. With 11 official languages (and hundreds of dialects), the most ethnic diversity in all of Africa, vastly different cultures within them, and wars because one of them want control, this country has every reason to be unstable and forever find conflict. Through the ubiquitous use of money, everyone is reminded in a very simple and unoffensive way who South Africa is, was, and could be.

It was just announced this month though that by the end of the year, Nelson Mandela will be featured on the front of every note, moving the big five to the back of the bill. I think it is unusual this didn't happen sooner but also that it's disgraceful to replace the rich art of the current system with the one facsimile of Mandela's face. The notes still give a sense of pride and place of South Africa, through the image of a man who basically brought democracy and freedom to every South African, but it is extremely narrower, static, and feels less celebratory than overtly political, 22 years later. It is a single man and time of struggle in history rather than evocative images of identity that all South African's share, love, and are united by.

I'll show their coins next time, but they aren't nearly as interesting. 


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