The first time I opened a bank account it was in a grand branch of Barclays Bank in an era when the bank manager was a kind of demigod. I remember the upheaval and drama when Barclays, quite rightly, left our then pariah country.
Back then “going to the bank“ was one of the things that you did like going to the post office or going shopping. The bank had an extraordinarily central part in society by virtue of the fact that everybody got money from the bank. If you had a loan or you wanted to deposit or withdraw money, the only way to interact with the bank was to physically go into the bank. Back then, your branch was your branch. There was none of the interlinking we now have via internet banking.
As automatic teller machines (ATMs) emerged in the 1980s my architect mother was hired by Barclays to design and build their ATM enclosures, which she continued doing for FNB when Barclays left. Even then, “going to the ATM” was a thing people used to do.
When the internet arrived, my computer-genius best friend was working on Nedbank’s cleverly-named Netbank project. I was a client and he got me one of the 50 test accounts. It was pretty limited in terms of functionality, but it was the beginning of the digital banking revolution.
I’ve been thinking about these changes in banking this week because I opened a new account entirely on my smartphone. By taking a selfie.
It took me about five minutes, to run through the registration process in the new Capitec app, which launched this week amidst much fanfare about this novel new way of opening a bank account.
I had a few hiccups when scanning my smart ID card, but it went through on the third time. This data is then verified against a database run by the Department of Home Affairs. This is a clever system of establishing someone’s identity which I have used several times when I have installed the FNB app on a new iPhone.
Expect an SMS, Capitec instructed me, which duly arrived a few hours later.
The next process also took about five minutes, and requires three more because the app does a wonderfully clever thing: Instead of signing using a traditional means (pen, digital pen, or digital-signing tech) each time you accept the three agreements, you take another selfie.
The process of the selfie-taking involves placing your face inside an oval and moving your phone closer to your face as the oval gets bigger. I assume this is to check that you’re alive and the account isn’t being set up with a photograph – to prevent anyone but the owner of the face registering the bank account.
The app itself, which I have only just begun using, seems like all other banking apps. The first thing I set up – which also took a few minutes – was a virtual credit card, which is another hot new banking app feature that has become mainstream in the last six months. I have been using such virtual cards for about three years – via Standard Bank’s thoroughly excellent Shyft app – and can vouch for their usefulness.
But what Capitec is doing differently (I’m sure they’re claiming it as some kind of first, but I haven’t read the press release) is this post-branch method of opening a new account. Other banks let you add a new account through their app, but only with an existing account.
This standalone functionality is particularly appropriate for Capitec’s mass market customer base – and especially useful for people who live in rural areas and would have to both travel, and pay for it, to get to a branch.
The only problem I experienced so far is the account number appears but you cannot cut-n-paste it. How then, do you copy it and send it to someone? The biometric authentication option (fingerprint or face scan) doesn’t work, which the app says is a known error. It’s an embarrassing one, given that the app’s standout feature is using selfies to create an account but then not being able to use that to replace the login pin code. I’m sure this will fixed shortly and might be because I’m using an iPhone instead of Android, which runs on 90% of all smartphones.
Meanwhile, the banking world is closing all those fancy branches as digital takes over. I recently drove passed my childhood bank’s building, which FNB took over after Barclays withdrew. It’s now a gun store. No, I don’t know if there is any link.
This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.