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Show me the money

SA's savings rate has fallen below zero, according to the South African Savings Institute.

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The South African Savings Institute has just released research that shows this country's savings rate has fallen below zero. The news is depressing but hardly surprising. Unless people have forced savings or are earning ridiculous amounts of cash, it's next to impossible to save right now.

We could blame higher interest rates, food inflation and higher fuel costs, but it's a pity no one ever gets round to blaming the retailers; they have been ripping off the South African public for decades.

Because how is one meant to save when telecommunications costs are higher than they should be, when cars are more expensive than in other countries, when bank fees are at times extreme, when books and music are overpriced and when electronic equipment is marked up way above the norm?

Not keeping up

How is one meant to save when telecommunications costs are higher than they should be, when cars are more expensive than in other countries, when bank fees are at times extreme.

Ren'ee Bonorchis, Business Day, editor at large

Some clever types try to console us with adages like "electricity in South Africa is of the cheapest in the world", but our pockets don't know that because electricity costs have soared and are eating into our savings. Further, for the first time in a number of years, almost no one's salary is keeping up with inflation. We've got consumer price inflation at 13%, but the average salary increase this year is around 8%, according to researchers in the field.

Of course we're not saving! And no amount of righteous talk about how much Chinese or Japanese people save is going to change that. Supposedly during times of economic stress, people save harder. But not in South Africa. And I don't think that's because we're buying space age microwaves and fancy cars - it's because we've still got to eat, pay off the house, pay off the car, get to work and send the kids to school.

In which case, instead of moaning about consumer habits, I wish the authorities would moan more about the unfair pricing structures still inherent in our economy.

Which is not to say our competition bodies aren't fantastic. They do sterling work, but they can't do everything. Is it that consumers are apathetic about fighting rising costs? Possibly. Or is it that retailers know we don't have much choice and are wholeheartedly fleecing us? Probably. There are no fast or easy solutions and research has also shown that almost 70% of South Africans think it's worth paying a higher price for a well-known brand. That probably means that despite the squeeze on our bank accounts, we prefer to shop at Woolworths.

Taking strain

But now is a time for convenience to subside and for consumers to shop around. There's the small problem that we don't have the time to shop around - we're too busy trying to make money to plug the yawning gaps created by our high indebtedness. There's also the small problem that while the Internet creates all sorts of opportunities for cost comparisons and hassle-free shopping, bandwidth is not the greatest and it's pretty expensive.

Local consumers are caught in something of a trap and while surveys talk a lot about how low income earners are having a hard time, I've got to say I think the middle class is suffering. It's not politically correct to say it, but let's look at who's carrying the tax burden and yet has no social welfare structures to fall back on. Let's look at who spends all their time working just to be cheated at the till on items that are essential.

Damn right we're not saving! If South Africa were a different country, I'd say it was time government stepped in and instituted national savings plans for all of us while battling the retailers. But government's focus is on low-income workers and supposedly that's the way it should be. But in times like these I'm not so sure. The middle class, to my mind, is feeling increasingly disaffected and it would be nice to know that someone cared.

All manner of politicians are going to say they care, in the run-up to our elections next year, but policies will not change in favour of the middle class. The best we can do is bitch and moan to each other, and then dash out to Woolies to buy dinner.

* Ren'ee Bonorchis is Business Day's editor at large.

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