#StateCaptureInquiry: Absa, FNB set to testify on Gupta account closures

Spokesperson for the commission, Mbuyiselo Stemela, announced on Monday that the next banks whose representatives would take the witness stand are FirstRand chief executive Johan Burger and Absa head of compliance Yasmin Masithela. (Bloomberg)

Spokesperson for the commission, Mbuyiselo Stemela, announced on Monday that the next banks whose representatives would take the witness stand are FirstRand chief executive Johan Burger and Absa head of compliance Yasmin Masithela. (Bloomberg)

The judicial commission of inquiry into state capture will continue to look into the 2016 closures of Gupta-related bank accounts on Tuesday, with officials from Absa and FNB expected to give evidence.

Spokesperson for the commission, Mbuyiselo Stemela, announced on Monday that the next banks whose representatives would take the witness stand are FirstRand chief executive Johan Burger and Absa head of compliance Yasmin Masithela.

On Monday the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — heard the testimony of Standard Bank’s general counsel, Ian Sinton, who alleged that there had been interventions from both the ANC and government to intervene in the closure of the accounts.

READ MORE: Standard Bank was accused of belonging to WMC lobby at Luthuli House meeting

At the beginning of Sinton’s testimony, led by advocate Phillip Mokoena, it was announced that both Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant and the former mining minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, had been notified by the commission that they had been implicated.

Both indicated that they would consult with their lawyer before deciding on whether or not to apply for leave to cross-examine Sinton.

Sinton’s testimony dealt with section 1.7 of the commission’s terms of reference, which mandates its investigators to look into “whether any members of the national executive and including deputy ministers unlawfully or corruptly or improperly intervened in the matter of the closing of banking facilities for Gupta-owned companies”.

In 2016, Absa, FNB, Nedbank and Standard Bank unexpectedly cut ties with Gupta-owned businesses and shut down their bank accounts. The closures came amid allegations that the Gupta family had improper influence over then president Jacob Zuma.At the time the Guptas owned Oakbay Investments, the holding company for a range of interests including listed Oakbay Resources and Energy, as well as The New Age newspaper and broadcaster ANN7.

Sinton told the commission about a meeting called by an inter-ministerial committee, comprising of Oliphant, Zwane and Gupta associate Mzwanele Manyi.
Manyi was not a minister, but said he was at the meeting as an advisor, Sinton said.

Manyi has already been implicated by one of the commission’s witnesses. Phumla Williams, the acting head of Government Communication and Information System, recounted how the self-professed Zuma loyalist took over as head of the department when Themba Maseko was unceremoniously removed from the position after failing to yield to the alleged demands of Ajay Gupta.

Sinton told the commission on Monday that during the meeting with the inter-ministerial committee on May 5 2016 Zwane had threatened to change the law to make it illegal for the bank to close the accounts of the Gupta-owned entities.

“The meeting was an attempt by two Cabinet ministers on behalf of Cabinet to get us to retract the decision to close the accounts of the Gupta entities,” Sinton said. “There was no other reason for the meeting.”

In a statement released after the meeting Zwane suggested a judicial investigation into banks be called in response to their refusal to continue doing business with the Gupta family following the meeting.The presidency later distanced government from Zwane’s statement. A statement released by then president Zuma’s office at the time said Zwane had made the comments in his personal capacity.

Zwane’s alleged links to the Guptas are well-documented. In the so-called Gupta leaks, emails show that the Gupta family were sent Zwane’s CV a month before he was appointed minister of mineral resources and that that he took a trip to India on a Gupta plane where the Guptas footed the bill for his accommodation.

Even before the October 2012 trip to India, Zwane was linked to the Guptas through the controversial Estina dairy project in Vrede, Zwane’s hometown. At the time he was Free State MEC for agriculture.

The controversial Estina dairy project was one of the reasons Standard Bank decided to cut its ties to Gupta-owned enterprises, Sinton told the commission.

Sinton confirmed that despite these meetings, Standard Bank was not persuaded to reopen the Gupta accounts. At the time the banks cited the need to comply with international banking rules when dealing with customers and concern over their reputations.

The former president called the banks’ actions suspicious, saying their action could point to collusion. Then finance minister Pravin Gordhan was asked by Oakbay to stop the banks terminating the accounts, spurring Gordhan to seek a court order stating that he cannot prevent banks from cutting clients. Sinton had filed an affidavit with the Pretoria High Court in the matter.In the affidavit Sinton alleged that Standard Bank was asked to meet both the ANC as well as the Cabinet inter-ministerial committee, in an attempt to place it under political pressure to reverse its decision.

Absa’s Masithela also filed an affidavit supporting Gordhan’s application. Masithela said Absa was approached on two occasions by Zarina Kellerman, Zwane’s then secretary, requesting a meeting to discuss “certain allegations made against certain financial institutions”. Absa chief executive Maria Ramos “politely declined” the request to meet, the affidavit said.

In an affidavit Burger also said he was approached by Zwane, but declined because of the committee’s unwillingness to share who would attend the meeting and what allegations had been made against FNB.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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