South Africa's banking system is not only the most sophisticated in Africa but also the equal of that in many western countries. There has been a reduction rather than increase in the number of banks operating in South Africa recently; since 2002, some banks have been taken over, some have given up their banking licence, and others have left the market, including the African Merchant Bank, BoE Bank, Brait Merchant Bank, ING Bank NV and PSG Investment Bank. Surviving banks have had to make fairly drastic staff cuts to contain operating expenses. Nevertheless, according to a 2004 Ernst & Young report, there's a strong demand for banking services, particularly bank loans and mortgages.
According to the central banking authority, the South Africa Reserve Bank (www.reservebank.co.za), South Africa currently has 15 locally-controlled banks, six foreign-controlled banks (which, however, operate in much the same way as South African banks), two registered mutual banks and around 50 registered foreign bank branches and representative offices. The retail market is dominated by the 'big four': Absa (www.absa.co.za), FirstRand Bank (www.firstrand.co.za), Nedcor (www.nedcor.co.za), and Standard Bank (www.standardbank.co.za), who between them have over 15 million customers (including almost 1 million internet customers) and 25 million accounts. As in other countries, internet banking is projected to increase rapidly, although South African customers have so far been wary of banking online, following newspaper stories of hackers stealing large amounts of money.
Despite their sophistication, South African banks are widely criticized for high charges, poor levels of customer service, over-regulation (particularly foreign-controlled banks) and general cartel-like behavior. As anywhere, you should therefore shop around and compare rates before signing any contracts or taking out a loan (banks must publish their conditions).
Bank opening hours vary but are generally from 9am until 3.30pm, Mondays to Fridays, and 9am until 11am on Saturdays. You can open a bank account in South Africa whether you're a resident or a non-resident. You must be at least 18 and provide proof of identity, e.g. a passport and your address in South Africa (a utility bill usually suffices). Before choosing a bank, it's wise to compare the fees charged for international money transfers and other services, which can be high (a bank's website usually has details of charges, although it can be tedious wading through the long lists of charges for the many services offered).
It's best to open a South African bank account in person, rather than from abroad. However, if you do wish to open an account with a South African bank while abroad, you will need an application form from a branch of a South African bank (either in South Africa or in your home country). If you open an account by correspondence, it is likely you will need a reference from your bank, including a certified signature (or a signature witnessed by a solicitor or lawyer). You will also probably need a photocopy of the relevant pages of your passport and a rand draft to open the account.
All banks provide credit cards and debit cards to obtain cash throughout South Africa and also abroad, usually via the CIRRUS and NYCE networks. However, it's unwise to rely solely on ATMs to obtain cash, as they often run out of money or are out of operation (and occasionally swallow your card!), besides being a dangerous draw for robbers. Note also that daily withdrawals with an ATM card are generally limited to around R2,000 (£175) ($200) (€155)
If you have an unresolved dispute with your bank or a complaint about a banking service or product, you can approach the Banking Adjudicator (Tel. 011-838 0035, www.oba.org.za), an independent body which provides a free, informal, confidential problem-solving service. You can only refer to the Adjudicator after having first approached the bank and the Adjudicator will require complaint reference number and copies of all correspondence between you and the bank. If you have a problem concerning a loan, you can approach the Micro Finance Regulatory Council (Tel. 0860-100 406, www.mfrc.co.za), a private, non-profit body appointed by the government to regulate the micro-lending industry and protect the interests of customers. You can check your credit rating (for a small fee) or seek advice about credit problems from either of South Africa's two major credit bureaux: Experian (Tel. 089-110 5665, www.experian.co.za) and ITC (Tel. Cape Town, 021-401 4200, Durban 031-366 8222, Johannesburg 011-488 2911, www.itc.co.za). If they're unable to solve your credit problem, you next stop is the Credit Information Ombud (Tel. 0861-662 837, www.creditombud.org.za), a voluntary, independent association reporting to an industry council.
Below is a listing of the top 20 banks in South Africa, listed in rank order by size of deposits. Many are located in Johannesburg.
1 ABSA Bank
2 The Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd, Johannesburg
3 Nedcor Bank, Johannesburg
4 First National Bank of Southern Africa Ltd, Johannesburg
5 Boe Investment Bank, Johannesburg
6 Investec Bank, Johannesburg
7 African Bank Investment Ltd, Johannesburg
8 CorpCapital Bank, Johannesburg
9 Saambou Bank, Johannesburg
10 PSG Investment Bank, Cape Town
11 African Merchant Bank, Johannesburg
12 Imperial Bank
13 Unibank, Johannesburg
14 Rand Merchant Bank, Sandton
15 Real Africa Durolink Investment Bank Ltd, Johannesburg
16 Mercantile Bank Lisbon, Sandton
17 Brait Merchant Bank, Johannesburg
18 Gensec Bank, Johannesburg
19 FBC - Fidelity Bank, Cape Town
20 The Business Bank