The proposed amendments to Fica aim at tackling the issue of politically exposed individuals. Picture: ISTOCK
The proposed amendments to Fica aim at tackling the issue of politically exposed individuals. Picture: ISTOCK

Following a heated and, at times, chaotic exchange, Parliament’s finance committee steered its way through a political minefield on Wednesday and set a line of march for the disputed Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) Amendment Bill.

The frustration underlying the entire process was palpable. The issues raised on Wednesday by the Black Business Council (BBC) and Progressive Professionals Forum, the parties that petitioned President Jacob Zuma not to sign the bill, had all been canvassed when the amendment bill was processed the first time.

The discussions had all been had. Very specifically, the matter raised by Zuma — that the clause allowing warrantless searches was unconstitutional — had been extensively discussed and revised in the amendment to bring it in line with a recent Constitutional Court judgment.

It is no wonder that members of the committee, across the board, saw the return of the bill as a ruse by politically aligned business people wanting to avoid greater scrutiny. They had decided upfront they would not entertain any bending of Parliament’s rules to allow a broader discussion on the bill other than the matter specifically raised by the president. The BBC’s call that the bill should be scrapped fell on unsympathetic ears.

To explore the matter of warrantless searches, the committee and the Treasury — from where the bill emanated — brought in the big guns. Several senior counsel gave opinions on the constitutionality or not of the clause, broadly agreeing that the president’s overall concerns were unfounded. To be completely sure and to remove all ambiguity, some redrafting was suggested to make it clear that warrantless searches could be used only in specific circumstances by inspectors empowered by the act and only to inspect institutions, such as banks or business premises, to enforce the act.

Next week, the committee will receive a report summarising the proceedings on which it will deliberate. From the way things unfolded on Wednesday, the committee seems likely to settle for some minor redrafting and then send the bill back to Parliament for processing. After that it will be back on the president’s desk.

But that will be far from the end of the story.

Greater public scrutiny of the banks by the government and by Parliament is just starting to unfold.

The closure of the Guptas’ bank accounts has given rise to significant negative public sentiment against the banks. There are those sympathetic to the Guptas’ situation because of their business or other relationships with the family. Many of them are paid to whip up sentiments against the banks and "white monopoly capitalism" on social media as part of a political campaign to save the family’s businesses.

The closure of the Guptas’ bank accounts has given rise to significant negative public sentiment against the banks

There are also those, not sympathetic to the Guptas, who doubt the bona fides of the banks in cancelling the family’s accounts and fear that, with the FIC amendment bill, the same could happen to them. Many in the ANC resent the power of the banks and view them as an obstacle to progress in black economic empowerment.

Powerful people populate these groupings, such as Zuma himself and his supporters in the ANC and Cabinet.

There are also the genuine left politicians, such as finance committee chairman Yunus Carrim, who as part of the South African Communist Party has spent years campaigning against the banks, with very little to show for it.

As the political temperature changes, Carrim has said that he would hold public hearings into the transformation of the banks. All the issues and sentiments raised on Wednesday in the committee and which were skillfully put aside, are now to be aired at a date set down in March. It is a perfect storm from which there will be very little shelter.

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