As the Economist points out, a boom in consumer credit in South Africa has run its course with African Bank's demise. The figures are staggering - Almost half of all South Africans struggle to service their debts, says the credit regulator. The 20m who are “credit active” currently owe 1.44 trillion rand between them. That works out to 71,416 rand per person, on average, around the same as South Africa’s GDP!
PERHAPS because they had no access to banking during apartheid, poor South Africans have been gorging themselves on credit ever since. A glut of consumers impatient to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle has made the fortunes of payday lenders, which charge sky-high interest rates for smallish unsecured loans. Yet, after weeks on the ropes, African Bank, the biggest purveyor of such loans, has had to be rescued from near-bankruptcy. South Africa’s authorities insist there is no broader rot in the financial system. The problems at African Bank, they say, stem from its “unique business model”. This is partly true: unlike most lenders, which use deposits to fund loans, African Bank raised money from financial markets instead. Its 2.4m customers were disproportionately poor and had little in the way of assets, such as homes, to put up as collateral. Nearly a third of its loans were in arrears, leading to crippling losses. But although its lending standards may have been especially lax, the strains its customers are suffering from—unemployment is high and fuel and food prices have been rising—are being felt by those of other banks, too.