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Billions of rands have been lost to South Africa through fraud, corruption and mismanagement in the past decade – according to past Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, the total may be as much as R 100 billion.  But how many of us really understand how much a billion of anything actually is?

Until the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom viewed a billion as the equivalent of a million million.  The United States, however, defined a billion differently as a thousand million.  Today, the American definition of a billion is accepted universally and a trillion is now equal to one million million.


R1 million = R 1,000,000.00 (a thousand thousand)           (six noughts before the decimal point)

R1 billion = R 1,000,000,000.00 (a thousand million)         (nine noughts before the decimal point)

R1 trillion = R 1,000,000,000,000.00 (a million million)     (12 noughts before the decimal point)

To give the matter some perspective, in terms of time, a million seconds is equal to 12 days, a billion seconds to 32 years, and a trillion seconds to over 30 000 years.  In monetary terms, if a million rand were divided among 54.5 million South Africans, each individual would receive 18 cents!  If a billion rand were split between the whole population, each individual would receive around R18 each.  A trillion rand, however, would provide each of us with R18 000.

South Africa’s national (government) debt is currently around ZAR 3 trillion (ZAR 2,995,542,000,000).  If one adds to this, state-owned enterprise debt amounting to some ZAR 700 billion in the last financial year (and the approximately ZAR 172 billion worth of interest that has to be paid each year on servicing the country’s debt), total national debt currently stands at around ZAR 3, 872 billion, or almost 71.5% of the country’s GDP!  That amounts to almost ZAR 71,046.00 per South African citizen.  However, as more than half South Africa’s population consists of children, and in excess of 17 million people depend on the government for social grants, each economically active citizen, i.e. working adult, is required to repay approximately R366,696.00 each year to South Africa’s creditors.   This is over and above each economically active citizen’s normal living costs and the taxes he/she is obliged to pay to cover government salaries and running costs.

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?