When R14 million appears

File: Logo of Walter Sisulu University in East London. Photo: Supplied

When I was a teenager – I can’t remember exactly how old, but younger than 16, I think – my grandmother gave me a birthday present of R1 000. She was living in Portugal, but still had a bank account to receive her Wits pension in South Africa, and she paid the money into my bank account out of that. My rather sketchy memory of the past tells me that at the time, I held a Bob-T account, but I could have fabricated that.

I drew the money and spent it on a few choice purchases, including buying something for my mom (R1 000 went quite a lot further in those days). And then I went back to my life of teenage pauperdom, and didn’t use my bank account for anything for a while.

Exactly nine months later, I randomly did a balance query at an ATM. I don’t know what compelled me. Perhaps I was hoping that the few loose cents rattling around in there had somehow multiplied with the magic of compound interest and grown to an amount that I could actually withdraw.

The ATM issued a little white slip of paper and I glanced, not very optimistically, at the balance. To my great surprise, there was rather a bit of money in there – R9 000 to be exact. I had a fleeting notion that I’d won some kind of banking lottery. Then I wondered if there was some technical error, so I checked again. I tried to convince myself that the interest on R5.50 could add up to R9 000 in nine months. And then I assumed some kind of mistake had been made, and I went into my nearest branch to discuss it with a teller.

It hurt me. I knew that this money was not mine, and I knew that the R9 000 could have bought me a lot of whatever I was into in those days (probably books and CDs). I considered withdrawing it all and putting it under my mattress, but I was driven by a desire to do the right thing (and a fear of being caught doing the wrong one). At the tender age of not yet 16, I knew what I had to do.

It emerged that my grandmother had somehow created a stop order instead of a once-off payment, and so R1 000 was being deposited into my account every month. Because I hadn’t been checking my bank account, it quietly accrued. I called her in Portugal to let her know, and she told me to hang on to the balance until she next came to South Africa – but to take another R1 000 for my troubles.

It wasn’t exactly paydirt, but it was enough to take some of the sting out of the loss.

Even so, it hurt me to have to give the rest back. So when I read about Sibongile Mani, the Walter Sisulu University student who was accidentally paid out R14 million by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), and then spent R800 000 of it at a frightening speed, I get it. I get all the heartbreaking thoughts that must have gone through her head.

They must have been a million times more heartbreaking than the thoughts that went through mine – because she clearly comes from a disadvantaged background, and I do not, and because R14 million is a mindblowing and lifechanging amount of money. She made the wrong decision – of course she did – but to present a student from a disadvantaged background with unimaginable wealth is a cruel and unreasonable thing to do.

It’s like holding a caviar and champagne party in front a person who can’t afford bread. 

Yes, the money was never hers. Yes, she knew that, and still behaved like it was. She owes that money back and rightly so. But the company distributing the NSFAS funds who did this to her put her in a very difficult position. Yes, she hasn’t come out of this smelling of roses (although her weave is lovely, and apparently the Johnny Walker Gold was delicious), but she should never have been put in that position – and she should never have had months to dig herself deeper and deeper into a financial hole that she’ll have to find a way out of.

That’s her first car, her first house, her family’s financial support blown in a few short months. She must feel like a complete idiot right now. I hope some of the things she bought were tangible assets so that she can get some money back for them. And perhaps she can write a book or start doing motivational talks once she’s sorted out her morals.

I’m not saying she shouldn’t be held responsible for what amounts to theft. But I am saying that there’s room in this story for a little sympathy and a little hope that she’ll emerge a better person for it. If not, I hope she had a blast while it lasted. She’ll be paying for it for at least the next 20 years of her life.

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