Tavern of the Seas: Just how much is a million?
Being a billionaire, however, is a different matter altogether. Billionaires are rich people. The trouble is not many people understand just how rich.
I always understood a billion to be a million million. Today, however (I suppose it’s because of the devalued rand or something) a billion is only a thousand million. That’s one followed by nine zeroes. Well, that’s the situation in America and South Africa. In Britain, however, a billion is a million million (one followed by 12 zeroes).
So when we learn that the SAA or Eskom has gone cap in hand to the government and asked for another handout of several billion rand of our tax money let’s hope they’re South African billions and not British billions, or we’d be even deeper in the smelly stuff than we already are.
The term “billion” is bandied about quite casually these days and I don’t think many people even think about it. We read that a government project overruns its budget by “six billion” rand and we sigh and turn to the next page. It’s just saying “a lot of money”, ho hum. Who’s surprised?
But let’s get those billions in perspective for a moment.
A comfortable three-bed roomed house in a middle class suburb in Cape Town probably has an official valuation of about R4million. If we use the cheaper version of a billion (nine zeroes) that’s the cost of 250 smart suburban homes.
So when we read that a government department has been “unable to account for” a couple of billion rands we’re talking about the cost of 500 suburban houses - almost a whole suburb.
We also tend to forget that a British billion is nothing like a South African billion. In fact it is one thousand times as much, not just a few zeroes different. Politicians love billions because nobody actually believes in them, like politicians’ promises. It’s convenient to announce: “we’ve allocated three billion for housing for the poor,” knowing hardly anybody has the faintest idea how many houses this will provide.
And if those billions include a million for a new car for a minister’s wife, why should we worry?
A million is not worth bothering about these days, is it?
A passenger on the Trans Karoo train called the conductor and said: “I may fall asleep, but I have to get off in De Aar, so please wake me and make sure I do get off. Here’s R100 to make sure you do’t forget.”
When the train reached Joburg the passenger was still aboard and totally furious.
“You stupid incompetent idiot!” he roared, "I told you to make sure I got off at De Aar. You are totally useless and I’m going to report you to the minister.”
As he stormed out of the station one of the passengers said: "Hell, that was one very angry guy.”
The conductor sighed and said: “Not half as angry as the guy I kicked off the train in De Aar.”
* "Tavern of the Seas" is a daily column written in the Cape Argus by David Biggs.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.