An FNB branch in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
An FNB branch in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Two of the country’s big four banks — FNB and Absa — refused to meet with the interministerial committee set up by the cabinet to intervene on the Gupta family’s behalf when its bank accounts were closed in 2016.

Questions were raised by both banks about the powers of the committee and whether the executive had the right to intervene in their client relationships, the Zondo inquiry into state capture was told on Tuesday.

Former FirstRand group CEO Johan Burger, on behalf of FNB, and Yasmin Masithela, group executive of strategic services at Absa, testified about their interactions with the interministerial committee, headed by former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane.

The committee was made up of Zwane, labour minister Mildred Oliphant and then finance minister Pravin Gordhan, and was tasked by the cabinet to engage the banks after the closure of the Gupta firm Oakbay’s accounts on the grounds that these may deter future potential investors in SA.

Between February and December 2016, SA’s major banks closed the Gupta family’s and its companies’ accounts.

Gordhan, who was fired as finance minister in March 2017, was not at the cabinet meeting where the decision was taken. He also did not attend any of the committee meetings, but did approach the high court in Pretoria for a declaratory order confirming that he was not allowed to intervene in the dispute between the banks and the Gupta family.

Gordhan’s affidavit detailed 72 Gupta-related transactions worth R6.8bn that were flagged by the Financial Intelligence Centre because there was "no apparent business or lawful purpose" for the transfers.

Burger and Masithela told the commission they had declined to meet the committee after their requests for more information about the engagements came to naught.

On Monday, Standard Bank disclosed how Zwane had threatened to have the laws changed to prevent banks from closing accounts, and reminding them that they needed a government licence to operate.

Nedbank, who attended a meeting with the committee, is due to testify on Wednesday.

The ANC has also been thrown into the centre of state-capture allegations as then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte and head of the party’s economic transformation committee Enoch Godongwana contacted the banks requesting meetings.

Burger said he was contacted by Godongwana asking him to attend a meeting with Mantashe, but this was later cancelled.

Masithela said Absa met with the ANC after Mantashe had approached the bank’s CEO Maria Ramos at a Business Leadership SA meeting. Absa made it clear it would not discuss issues related to clients.

quintalg@businesslive.co.za