Earlier this week I bought groceries at the Pick n Pay with Bitcoin. It was my first time. I felt as it must have felt when the first sheep trader gave the seller a lump of gold and both merely trusted the other that the lump of metal represented a healthy sheep or its equivalent. I bought lamb chops and toilet paper. To me, it represented a new financial freedom.

It was the cashier’s first time too. We had to figure out the scanning system and options on her terminal together. ‘I don’t understand?’ she asked. ‘Where did that money just come from?’ I pointed to somewhere in the sky where I would imagine the digital cloud to be, waved my hands around vaguely like a car guard and replied: ‘The air….’

‘Hau!’ she said. ‘I also want some of that air money.’

I had no inkling either.

Like many people, I was afraid of the new technology and avoided attempts to demystify it. Gareth de Vaux, a Bitcoin aficionado made me look again. His indefatigable fervour, in-depth knowledge of cryptocurrency and its integration into his life were so infectious that I wanted some of that spark. He helped me load the apps and buy some Bitcoin. He came all the way to Pick n Pay Sunningdale to show me and Innocentia the ropes. I saw his eyes widen and his head shake slightly when I started talking about the ‘air money’ but he didn’t intervene as it looked like I had almost parked the car and he didn’t want to cause a collision. I asked him how he would explain Bitcoin to the teller. The man is a geek genius, but he tried. This was his first attempt: 

‘Bitcoin is a digital currency that runs on a computer network. The network doesn’t transfer rands or dollars – it’s completely new money not issued nor controlled by a government. Anyone can access the network with any device, and likewise, anyone can become a part of the network – no licensing or registration is required. Bitcoin uses a system of mathematical rules that allows you to send money to anyone you choose, without the need for a bank or government to process or approve the transaction. Even after many attempts before and after Bitcoin, it is still the only system discovered that runs without central control. This means that no entity can take your Bitcoin if you protect it properly, it can’t block your payments, and it can’t create Bitcoin on a whim like governments do with their own currency to get themselves out of trouble at the expense of their citizens’ purchasing power.’

It is a great summary, but people like me and Innocentia will just look at you and go: ‘Hau!’

I asked if he could simplify it. It was a good exercise for both of us.

‘Bitcoin is a new type of money that works over the internet. You can send Bitcoin with an app on your phone or computer to a shop or other people anywhere in the world.’

For people like Gareth, Bitcoin is more than a new currency; it represents an almost parallel financial universe where you can circumvent centralised power structures and escape the constraints of big government and Big Brother. It is an ideological conviction as much as a way to be financially savvy. ‘What’s in it for me? Full self-sovereignty. It is the only asset that you have full control over. Unseizable, uncensorable and ‘inflatable’. This makes it a good savings vehicle. To me, it gives an asymmetric risk/reward bet to the upside’.

I was exposed to Gareth’s vision of Bitcoin when he was speaking at a conference, but it only became a reality to me when he said I could use it at Pick n Pay to buy groceries. Before that, it was science-fiction; pie in the sky next to the air money.

Carel van Wyk is the founder of Money Badger, a business that focuses on making Bitcoin payments simpler and safer. They were responsible for introducing Pick n Pay to this payment option in 2017. At the time, the potential of the technology was interesting, but network fees made it unprofitable. With the development of the new Lightning technology, network capacity issues became less problematic and the implementation of Bitcoin in the supermarket chain went from a test store in Mossel Bay to all stores across the country, including Pick n Pay Clothing and Express shops.

A year ago, Bitcoin turnover in Pick n Pay stores was R220,000 per month. It is now over R1 million, still a paltry amount in terms of gross income, but a five-fold increase nevertheless.

‘We got enthusiastic about Bitcoin in South Africa because we live here’, says Van Wyk. ‘Also, we like building things.’ 

As an electronic engineer, he is excited about the autonomy and entrepreneurial scope the technology offers. ‘Bitcoin makes it easier for anyone to start building things. That is what South Africa needs – builders and creators. Our country is filled with such people, we must just lower the barrier to entry and give them the freedom and the tools’.

I asked Van Wyk how we would explain the concept of Bitcoin to a supermarket teller as he appeared to be aghast at my ‘air money’ elucidation. He suggested referring to it in the way Bitcoin was originally introduced: ‘electronic cash’. 

‘Explain to her that Bitcoin is a currency, similar to Rand, Dollar, Pound or Kwacha. Exactly as she is used to understanding a credit card as a plastic placeholder representing cash in a bank, the Bitcoin wallet is an electronic placeholder for Bitcoin electronically.’  

For fun, I will probably add that all of them are advances on keeping cash in your mattress, or, if you are a president, your sofa. He adds that the expectation was initially that people would use it for the cashless convenience and safety of it, but that users soon started hanging on to their *sats as either a speculative asset or an investment.

Van Wyk is quick to add that people anticipating their Bitcoin to be completely out of reach of government are in for a surprise, but it does offer small businesses in the township easy access to a financial system without a bank account, a tax number or expensive infrastructure. All you need is WiFi and a cell phone, which most people have already.

The development of this technology has also not gone unnoticed by the SARB (South African Reserve Bank) which has mentioned it as part of its digital roadmap in terms of expanding cryptocurrencies and electronic payments in the service of underprivileged communities. At the moment, the SA government has not gone after Bitcoin by interfering with unrealised capital gains, but one never knows.

For Bitcoin to become a more mainstream currency and escape the ‘fringe’ or ‘scam’ label, it will have to work in practice for more people, as it is doing for me now. Herman Viviers runs Bitcoin Ekasi, a surfing NPO in the Mossel Bay area. His surfing coaches get their salaries in Bitcoin and they all do their shopping at Pick n Pay with Bitcoin. He never explained to the young township surfers how blockchain technology worked. He simply took all of them to the local Pick n Pay and showed them how to buy something with it. 

‘Our team understands that it’s money, not necessarily because they understand how it works, but because they use it every day. The moment they came back with their apple, their Coke or their packet of chips, they understood it exactly’.

That is how it went for me as well. Once you do it, you get it. 

I started with R1,000 worth of sats and forgot about it because I was apprehensive about how it worked. Now I have almost R3,000 worth. I am not a serious investor, but it is exciting to see something growing in a way I have never experienced my Rands doing. 

It is exhilarating to embrace something as potentially groundbreaking as the printing press or the internet. It might only be 1-ply loo paper in my cupboard, but it represents the democratisation of a financial system, and I won’t simply wipe my ass with it, despite understanding its inherent volatility. I’m treating it with curiosity and awe and the joy of learning new things.

I am going back to Innocentia tomorrow; I want to show her something.

*’Sats’ is short for Satoshis, the smallest unit of Bitcoin (BTC). One Satoshi (sat) is equal to 0.00000001 BTC (one hundred millionth of a Bitcoin). In other words, there are 100,000,000 satoshis in a Bitcoin.

[For more information on Bitcoin Ekasi: https://bitcoinekasi.com ]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Viv Vermaak is an award-winning investigative journalist, writer and director. She was the most loved and hated presenter on South Africa’s iconic travel show, “Going Nowhere Slowly’ and ranks being the tall germ, “Terie’ in Mina Moo as a career highlight. She does Jiu-Jitsu and has a ’69 Chevy Impala called Katy Peri-Peri.