There I was, in the South African bush. As I watched from the open Land Rover, the leopard killed the rabbit.

Was I worried that I would be next - the first American Banker correspondent eaten by an animal in the paper's 161-year history?

No.

There is certainty, there is security, among the wild animals in the bush. Guides can bring you within 10 feet of a lion or leopard, and you needn't have the slightest fear for your safety. The animals instinctively feel that these cars are no threat.

No, braving the South African wilds didn't shake my sense of security. But using an ATM at Volksbank's airport office in Johannesburg did.

The ATM ate my card.

In previous travels abroad I had come to believe that the Cirrus or Plus sign on an ATM was my magic carpet to getting money from my New Jersey bank accounts at the best exchange rate and with no hassle.

Hah!

Volksbank swallowed my card in an instant and flashed me this message on the screen:

"TRANSACTION INVALID, SEE YOUR LOCAL BRANCH."

So much for that card in South Africa. And I wished I had one for a bank whose ATMs let you hold your card while you swipe it through, so you don't have to wonder whether the machine that has just eaten your card will regurgitate it.

My other tries in South Africa, with my other ATM card and my wife's card, were equally hazardous.

One machine took a card, held it without action for a long minute, and then returned it with the announcement:

"TRANSACTION INVALID: YOU TOOK TOO LONG."

Finally, when I was able to use my ATM card and actually get currency, Standard Bank seemed to know what I had been through. Its receipt told of the 1,000 rand I wanted and then added its own comment:

"SUCCESSFUL."

If anything convinced me of the value of community banking, where you see a human rather than just a machine, it was this helplessness when my card was swallowed 7,000 miles from home and with no recourse.

Whenever I inserted a card I had the feeling I was playing a slot machine, gambling for my money and my card.

No one can tell me the public will accept this sort of banking when community banks are available.

Community banks have people who actually can guarantee that you can get your own money, out of your own account.

You don't have to pray. You don't have to figure your odds. And you don't have to wonder what you'll do next if you lose your gamble on the ATM slot machine.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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