National

Banks bent over backwards for Zuma

Craig McKune

After 1994, South Africa's biggest banks bent over backwards to accommodate Jacob Zuma, who regularly splurged on credit.

Standard Bank is just one of the banks where Zuma has been heavily in arrears. (Gallo)

He splurged with little regard for his inability to pay off his deepening debt.

This is according to evidence collated by audit firm KPMG and presented in its 2006 forensic report.

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Zuma was elected as ANC national chairperson in 1994 and ANC deputy president in 1997. He was South Africa's deputy president between 1999 and June 2005. During this period, he spent far in excess of his salary, buying properties and cars on credit, repeatedly exceeding his bank overdrafts' limits and defaulting on his debts.


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Other politicians at the Zuma trough


Contrary to sound practice, the banks often tolerated his actions. At least in the case of Absa, this was explicitly – though internally – justified on the basis that Zuma was "politically" and "strategically" valuable.

On numerous occasions Zuma, often through Schabir Shaik as his "financial adviser", promised the banks that his various benefactors would repay his debts, and in some instances they did. But inevitably Standard Bank, Absa and Nedbank, among others, got their fingers burnt.

Zuma's banking troubles first peaked after Standard Bank bonded a property of his in 1995. The bank had extended the bond despite Zuma having defaulted on a bond with a different bank months before.

By 1997, the Standard Bank bond was in arrears and Zuma's overdraft on a cheque account there exceeded R100 000. The bank put its foot down, cancelling his credit card and obtaining a court order against him, but it abandoned this order in 1998.

Disappointment
In 2002 Standard Bank appears to have dropped its pursuit of the R128 300 overdraft and in 2005 it wrote off Zuma's bond account – just less than R200 000 – as bad debt.

This did not stop FNB from granting Zuma a R900 000 bond for Nkandla after a senior bank official wrote: "I am sure that the powers that be will assist us where we need to bend the rules a little." Zuma benefactor Vivian Reddy had to stand security, though.

From 1996 to 2004, Zuma also built up a R214 000 overdraft at Nedbank, which politely noted its "disappointment" at Zuma's lack of response to their queries.

But Zuma's relationship with Absa was most telling. When Zuma opened his account in 1998, Absa business centre manager Raymond O'Neil attempted to justify the decision despite Zuma's bad credit record with Standard Bank and Nedbank, which he specifically noted.

O'Neil wrote in a memorandum that Zuma was likely to be elected South Africa's deputy president the following year and Nelson Mandela was going to settle his debts. Apparently quoting Zuma, O'Neil said that Zuma's "bank balance was the last item on his mind, with more important matters regarding the country and the province to focus on".

According to O'Neil: "We recommend the opening of [the] Unique package account for Minister Zuma, based on his strategic positioning and importance to the group." Within three months Zuma's account was in overdraft and he had, once again, exceeded his overdraft limits.

As Absa's patience wore thin in 2000 and bankers noted in records that Zuma's conduct was "unacceptable", there was indeed a R2-million cheque received from Mandela, but apart from R100 000 that stayed in his account, the rest immediately flowed out.

Although Zuma's financial position tended to be cash-starved at the time, in 2001 Absa signed him on as a Absa Private Bank client, which is usually reserved for those with more than R1-million to invest in markets.

Once again this was noted to be a political decision, seemingly in line with chief executive Nallie Bosman's view, stated in bank records, that "in terms of all financial matters" Zuma was considered "a strategic client".

But soon after this Zuma was hugely overdrawn, much to some bankers' chagrin. According to a note by one of them: "The conduct leaves much to be desired, but we have little option but to live with this client in view of his position."

 

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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