The government when discussing the arts lately likes to speak about how the arts are a worthy occupation and yet another way to diversify our economy. I agree. Unfortunately the banks in this country do not.
Like many people, I had to go through the Know Your Customer (KYC) exercise at my bank, First National Bank.
They wanted a pay slip. Artists don’t have payslips. I don’t have a job. I earn my money from writing and the money comes from many places. Banks don’t like this. Luckily I managed with a letter and some of my book contracts. I’ve been with my bank for a long time so it was not as difficult as I had anticipated and as I suspect it was for most artists. My daughter who is a musician was told she must bring her father’s payslip even though she is well above 21-years-old and earning her own living.
The conflict between the conservative thought patterns of banks, the disrespect generally given to artists, and the lack of independence of our local banks in the internationally banking community, was brought into focus when I received an email from FNB telling me that I was being investigated by the United States Treasury for terrorism and other nefarious illegal activities. Why might you ask? Because I had the audacity to win an international literary prize.
As some might know my novel, The Scattering, won Best International Fiction Book at this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is the third largest book fair in the world and is well established, having been running for more than 30 years. This prize came with a trip to Dubai and Sharjah, a trophy, and prize money. The prize money was divided equally between me and the publisher, Penguin Random House South Africa. The money was sent by electronic transfer, was credited to my account on November 9, and then was mysteriously frozen on November 16. When I learned I had won the prize I was away in Cape Town and thought my local branch of FNB might wonder why this money was appearing in my account, so I phoned them from South Africa to explain that this money would be arriving and what it was for.
For a week, no one seemed to know what the problem was. And then on November 24
This is a Department of US Treasury that enforces economic and trade sanctions against countries and groups of individuals involved in terrorism, narcotics and other disreputable activities. The screenshot shows the message that we received from Bank of America stating that your funds are still under investigation and we should hold the credit until OFAC releases it.”
I don’t think I’m being arrogant or prideful when I say that I am well-known in the country as a writer.
I have done quite a bit to push our literature forward, both with my own work and with my community activities including being the vice chair of WABO for many years and facilitating many writing workshops, nearly all as a volunteer. My books are read in both primary and secondary schools here, and primary schools in South Africa and overseas.
I have worked very hard, and, quite frankly, I take it as an insult that no one in FNB, from the top to my local branch, felt they could stand up to the international bullies on my behalf and say, “Hang on, this is one of our most celebrated citizen writers you’re accusing of being a terrorist.”
Anyone working in the arts in this country knows it is an economy of hardship. From music promoters who cheat musicians out of their agreed payment to hotel owners who ask poets to perform for ‘exposure’ to our own government departments that entice new writers to write pamphlets and books for them telling the writers that having their name on the cover will be payment enough.
To live by your art is a constant demoralising fight. So imagine my fury when finally I’m recognised outside of our borders for the hard work I do, when finally I earn some money to get through the lean times, the bank takes it, and, to compound insult to injury, they question my reputation and integrity on top of it.
Artists diversifying this economy? It is nearly as likely as donkeys flying if the banks are going to treat us like this.