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Cash and the Covid-19 Pandemic in South Africa

Categories : Cash and Crises, Cash ensures competition among payment instruments, Cash is the most widely used payment instrument
July 30, 2021
Published in : Access to cash, Africa, ATMs, Cash and Crises, South Africa
Cash in circulation grew markedly during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa. The country’s central bank implemented several measures to protect the cash supply chain in times of unprecedented economic dislocation.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Columbia University in the City of New York

The Economic Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic in South Africa

According to the Financial Times Coronavirus Tracked page, as of July 28 of this year, there have been 2.39 million confirmed cases of  SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa, and 70,338 people with Covid-19 have died. As of July 27, the country had administered 6.9 million vaccine doses, equivalent to 11.7 vaccine doses per 100 inhabitants; 9.5% of the population had received at least one dose, and only 4.4% of the country’s population were fully vaccinated.

Lockdown measures imposed by the Ramaphosa government during the Covid-19 pandemic have been rather harsh, including a ban on alcohol and tobacco sales, a nightly curfew, and the closing of borders. As a result, South Africa’s gross domestic product contracted 7%, its worst fall since 1920. The share of jobless people and those discouraged from looking for work reached 43% by the end of 2020.

Cash in Circulation Grew 8.23% in Value During the First Year of the Pandemic

According to South African Reserve Bank (SARB) data, cash in circulation grew 8.23% in value between March 2020 and March 2021, as it rose from ZAR155.544 billion (US$10.567 billion) to ZAR168.339 billion (US$11.44 billion). As detailed in the SARB Annual Report 2020/21, most of this increase arose from the growth in notes rather than coins in circulation (SARB 2021: 120). Notes in circulation grew 8.34%, going from ZAR149.079 billion (US$10.13 billion) in March 2020 to ZAR161.514 billion (US$10.97 billion) in March 2021. Coins in circulation grew 5.56%, as they went from ZAR6.465 (US$0.44 billion) to ZAR 6.825 billion (US$0.46 billion) between March 2020 and 2021.

Graph 1. South Africa: Cash in Circulation, January 2010-April 2021 (millions of South African rands)

Source: SARB Online Statistical Query, series KBP1000M.

Currency in circulation in South Africa increased 2.95% in value in March 2020, the month when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. Cash in circulation grew most rapidly in July 2020, at a rate of 5.41%.

Graph 2. South Africa: Cash in Circulation, January 2021-April 2021 (millions of South African rands)

Source: SARB Online Statistical Query, series KBP1000M.

Covid-19 and Responses from the Cash Cycle in South Africa

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SARB established an industry-wide forum to secure the continuity of the cash supply and monitor its performance (SARB 2021: 150).

The pandemic impacted production costs in the Mint and the South African Bank Note Company, both SARB subsidiaries. In 2020-2021, the Mint produced and delivered the SARB’s entire order of 811 million coins despite workforce capacity constraints. (SARB 2021: 80). In addition, the Bank Note Company printed 974 million banknotes and delivered 892 million notes in 2020-2021 (SARB 2021: 81).

According to the SARB, the incidence of counterfeiting diminished during the Covid-19 pandemic, going from 10.76 parts per million (ppm) in the March 2019-March 2020 period to 5.68 ppm in the March 2020-March 2021 period (SARB 2021: 27).

Beyond Covid-19: the SARB and the Payments System

“Macro forces shaping the digital revolution make for an incredible melting pot for innovation, with central bank money, commercial bank money and private money competing for a share of consumers’ wallets.” – Dr. Arif Ismail, Divisional Head – Fintech, Executive Management Department, South African Reserve Bank, quoted in PricewaterhouseCoopers, Payments 2025 & Beyond. Navigating the Payments Matrix: Charting a Course Amid Evolution and Revolution, May 2021, 10.

In 2020, the SARB completed the discontinuation of cheques as payment instruments in South Africa. The Bank also published a paper on the technical feasibility of establishing a domestic card scheme. This question has become even more critical given the accelerated adoption of digital payments during the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, and American Express are the only card schemes operating in the country.

In 2018, the Bank launched Project Khokha as proof of a wholesale payment system for interbank settlement employing a tokenized South African rand on distributed ledger technology. Last year, the Bank launched Project Khokha 2 to assess the feasibility of a retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) for domestic use (SARB 2021: 61).

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