Standard Bank joint CEO Sim Tshabalala. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Standard Bank joint CEO Sim Tshabalala. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
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The Zondo commission heard testimony this week from banking executives on the interaction in 2016 between themselves and both the ANC and the government on their decision to close the accounts of the Gupta family. Despite some expectations that the commission would not reveal anything new, their testimony was frankly shocking.

At the time, both sides presented the issue as a more or less civil discussion on the process of closing accounts generally. In fact, it turns out that the discussions were much angrier. They focused not on the issue in general but almost exclusively on the Gupta family’s accounts and they were informed by the "white monopoly capital" narrative.

The bullying and cajoling went so far as an implicit threat to pull the licence of the banks if they would not reverse their decision. A threat was also made to change the law to make banks unable to close accounts and, most outrageously, a suggestion was made that banks should break the law in order to make sure the remaining employees of the Gupta empire could get paid.

All of this was informed by the notion that banks are structured to prevent black South Africans from progressing in SA, an idea that astounded the banking executives. Notionally, this was being achieved through collusive behaviour intended and designed to exclude black South Africans from the banking system in terms of the "white monopoly capital" mantra.

For example, Standard Bank’s former head of compliance Ian Sinton testified that he and bank CEO Sim Tshabalala were asked to comment on the perception that they were part of white monopoly capital that was oppressing black business. They were also asked to comment on reports that the banks were "taking instructions from Stellenbosch" in closing the Guptas’ accounts.

To the suggestion that they should keep the accounts open so that the Guptas could pay their staff, Sinton pointed out that to do so would entail breaking not only their banking codes of practice but also the law.

The bank’s ANC interrogators — then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte and economic policy head Enoch Godongwana — seemed totally uninterested in investigating for themselves what the Guptas might have done to warrant the banks taking such a drastic step. The whole meeting was premised on the idea that the banks were at fault, not the perpetrators of the series of crimes that have subsequently become apparent.

To the suggestion that they should keep the accounts open so that the Guptas could pay their staff, Sinton pointed out that to do so would entail breaking not only their banking codes of practice but also the law.

This meeting with the ANC was followed up by a meeting with then mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who had been commissioned as part of an interministerial committee. Once again the assurance was given that the meeting would not and could not discuss the Guptas’ accounts themselves.

Nevertheless, when the meeting with two of the four banks did take place, the ministers involved kept harking back to the issue of the Gupta accounts. The banking executives left with the distinct impression that the committee was interested in the Guptas’ accounts and nothing else.

The committee accused the banks of harming SA’s reputation as a safe investment destination. You can imagine the executives trying to control their astonishment at this allegation. Surely, as Sinton testified, taking action against money laundering would enhance rather than diminish the reputation of SA’s banks?

In retrospect, the meetings demonstrate two things, one of which arguably has changed for the better and one of which continues to be a constant worry. They show how senior members of the ANC, and not just the Zuma faction, were mesmerised by the "white monopoly capital" propaganda that emanated from the now-defunct publicity company Bell Pottinger.

Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, thankfully this benighted idea is taking a back seat. But they demonstrate an extraordinary degree of financial illiteracy at the summit of the ANC. Whether this has measurably changed remains an open question.

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