The former ANC top six. Picture: SOWETAN
The former ANC top six. Picture: SOWETAN

Last year, then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe dismissed attempts to use "white monopoly capital" to deflect attention from allegations of state capture by the Gupta family.

Fast forward a little over a year, and Mantashe and the ANC have been plunged into the middle of the state capture saga, with the country’s big four banks telling the Zondo commission of inquiry how they were summoned to ANC headquarters at Luthuli House to explain themselves after they closed the Guptas’ bank accounts in 2016. The question they say they were asked was whether they were colluding with white monopoly capital to oppress black-owned businesses.

Ironically, it now seems the meetings between the banks and the governing party were initiated by Mantashe and the then head of the ANC’s economic transformation subcommittee, Enoch Godongwana — two men who went on to position themselves on the "right" side, backing President Cyril Ramaphosa and his project to clean up the state after more than a decade of looting and maladministration under former president Jacob Zuma. ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, a fierce supporter of Zuma and the Guptas, was also in attendance.

So the ANC’s assertion that it is not on trial at the state capture inquiry holds little water, given the testimony of the big four banks. And the party can no longer claim it was unaware of the influence wielded by the Guptas.

Between February and December 2016, SA’s major banks closed the accounts of the Gupta family and its companies, citing reputational risk. This came after a flood of negative media reports about the family and its influence over Zuma and the running of the state. Pressure mounted with the admission by then deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas, accompanied by Zuma’s son Duduzane Zuma and controversial businessman Fana Hlongwane, had offered him a R600m bribe and the job of finance minister, and the decision by international auditing firm KPMG to cut ties with the Guptas.

Absa was the first of the banks to take the decision to close the Gupta accounts. SA’s main financial institutions followed suit, and it is now public knowledge that the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments then wrote to Zuma and the ANC, asking them to intervene.

While the party summoned the banks to meetings at Luthuli House, the cabinet mandated an interministerial committee, bizarrely headed by Gupta-linked mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, to engage the banks on their decision to close the accounts.

State capture was not just ‘a Zuma thing’ — the party defended and protected the former president and frustrated attempts to combat or respond to allegations of impropriety

On April 21 2016, Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala, senior bank official Hannah Sadiki and the bank’s general counsel, Ian Sinton, made their way to Luthuli House for a meeting Sinton would describe to the inquiry as "horrible".

In his statement to the Zondo commission, Sinton said the bank had no problem engaging with the governing party on matters of national concern, but the fact that the ANC had requested the meeting with Standard Bank at the behest of Oakbay was evidence of the extent of the Guptas’ political influence "at the highest echelons of political office bearers in SA".

Of the four big banks — Absa, First National Bank (FNB), Nedbank and Standard — only FNB did not meet the ANC. (This was not for a lack of trying on the part of Godongwana; the bank had been prepared to attend the meeting, but it was later cancelled after FNB asked for the agenda.)

The three banks that attended these meetings say the party accepted that they could not comment on client-specific information. Instead, the conversation was around the legal frameworks and how a decision is made to close a client’s bank account. All also denied accusations of collusion — a narrative peddled by the Guptas and their allies.

Standard Bank was the only one to say it felt pressured by the ANC.

But pressure or not, was the party’s involvement above board?

Ebrahim Fakir, director of programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, says it is unfortunate that, in this whole saga, it seems the ANC played a role in facilitating "capture". By summoning the banks to a meeting, it was throwing its weight around, playing bully on behalf of a particular set of actors for no discernible public benefit. "This was merely to serve the interests of a network of individuals who were tied to those in power because those in power were getting some kickbacks from them," he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by the University of Johannesburg’s Mzukisi Qobo, who says the meetings called by the ANC and government are problematic — particularly in a market-based, democratic society.

"The party cannot impose its will at large over economic institutions," says Qobo. "It amounts to bullying and it does damage business confidence. Expending that energy to arm-twist institutions … is inappropriate."

It’s not that the government or party cannot meet banks to discuss issues of public interest, such as economic recovery or an economic road map, says Qobo – but it cannot do so to serve the interests of one family.

Both analysts are sceptical about the ANC’s attempts so far to distance itself from state capture.

"[This] is squarely about the ANC and there is no portion of the ANC, even at branch level, which can claim that they were unaware of this and that they fought against this," says Fakir. "The only reason they are doing this is because they need to change the narrative to restore a modicum of credibility."

Qobo says the party has been at pains to isolate state capture as a Zuma-era "maleficent", something that happened under a "rogue president".

"The narrative that the ANC is trying hard to drive is that we are in a new era; we are working hard to get to the bottom of state capture," he says. But state capture was not just "a Zuma thing" — the party defended and protected the former president during this time, and frustrated attempts to combat or respond to allegations of impropriety.

"This is an ANC problem," says Qobo, "and it has revealed the rot in the ANC."

But it’s not just the party that’s under fire; of more obvious concern is the government’s involvement — particularly given the banks’ suggestion that the real pressure came from the cabinet-mandated committee, headed by Zwane.

Only Standard Bank and Nedbank attended a meeting with the interministerial committee; Absa and FNB declined the invitation.

The banks have pointed to Zwane as the key player fighting their decision to close the Gupta bank accounts. Despite having no role in regulating the financial sector, the then mineral resources minister is said to have made threats about banking licences and changing the law to ensure it was illegal for a bank to close a client’s account.

Zwane is a controversial figure. He was plucked from obscurity as Free State agriculture MEC by Zuma in 2015 to head the mineral resources department. He subsequently emerged as a key and dangerous figure in the state capture narrative.

What it means

Banks were called to meetings with the ruling party and the government after closing the Guptas’ accounts

From his Swiss escapade, allegedly to force Glencore to sell Optimum Coal to the Guptas, to his controversial input into the policy side of mining, which led to a total breakdown in relations between the government and the mining sector, Zwane was in the thick of things until he was removed from the cabinet in February 2018 after Ramaphosa became president.

But Zwane wasn’t alone on the committee — labour minister Mildred Oliphant and then finance minister Pravin Gordhan were also tasked by cabinet to engage the banks on the grounds that the account closures could deter potential investors in SA.

Gordhan, whom Zuma fired as finance minister in March 2017, did not attend the cabinet meeting at which the decision was taken to approach the banks. He also did not attend any of the committee meetings – but he did approach the Pretoria high court for a declaratory order confirming that he was not allowed to intervene in the dispute between the banks and the Gupta family. He is expected to testify at the state capture inquiry next month.

While most of the Zondo inquiry’s focus has so far been on the state, it is clear that the ANC will have to come to the commission and give an account. Though the party’s meetings with the banks do not point to anything illegal, they suggest that even individuals like Ramaphosa, who served as deputy under Zuma, cannot claim they were unaware of what was happening. For that alone, the public deserves an explanation.

But as the ANC’s image takes a knock in the state capture hearings, the party is likely to attempt to sanitise its role.

Fakir says the party’s next move may be to claim that the commission was set up at its behest – and that none of this information would have come to light if it weren’t for the ANC itself. But this would simply be another perception exercise — one that would be used to garner support ahead of next year’s general elections, he explains. It was, after all, the courts that directed Zuma to appoint the commission, in line with a recommendation from public protector Thuli Madonsela.

Qobo, however, doesn’t think the issue will be too damaging for the party. He says the electorate doesn’t deal in nuance — so with Zuma and the state capture era gone, and with a commission of inquiry on the go, many are likely to think: "Let’s move on and vote for a party that will deliver radical economic transformation."

It is this, he says, that will be the likely tone of the ANC’s election message.