Before the term white monopoly capital became a (political) buzzword it existed as a system and still does, with a mighty infrastructure whose reach and influence is powerful and not to be underestimated or scoffed at as a race-baiting card.

It is real. To accuse the former UK PR machine of inserting the word into our everyday lexicon is to obfuscate from our duty as responsible and mindful South Africans of our collective history and how systems have been used to entrench power and the powerful.

If we are serious about housekeeping and also of holding the powerful to account, we need to look at the investigation into the banks which stand accused of rigging the rand.

So it comes with great expectation the Competition Commission’s announcement that it will no longer do deals with banks offering to cooperate into their alleged pernicious activities.

It is known that some of the banks in question had tried to hush-hush their way out of having to account and hence not have to deal with the scrutiny of the South African public and the possible repetitional and revenue damage it would have.

The Commission concluded an investigation in February into whether banks colluded to coordinate their trading actives when giving quotes to customers who were buying or selling currencies.

It recommended fines amounting to 10% of the more than a dozen local and foreign banks’ South African revenues in a scandal that has as one publication put it “piled political pressure on local banks”.

Banks in South Africa have a rich history of being in bed with the political party of the day – Bankorp being bailed out to the tune of R1.2 billion by the government.

Whether Public Protector ruling that Absa (who bought out Bankorp) should be liable for the R1.2 billion is another matter. 

Surely the shareholders of Bankorp should be held liable for that not insignificant tab as they surely benefited from the Absa bail-out.

As has been pointed out in media reports, from 1985 to 1992, the apartheid government, through the Reserve Bank, provided Bankorp with a series of bailouts to offset bad loans that threatened the bank’s survival. One of these was a payment of R225‑million a year for five years.

Fast forward to 2017 – the banks are, revenue wise, having it good. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the state of South African banks points out that “although there are differences in the financial performance of the individual banks, the four major banking groups posted combined headline earnings of R72.3bn, up 8.4% on annualised basis compared to 2015.”

So the big question is this: will the Competition Commission make them pay and make sure that these financial behemoths do not engage in illegal money rigging again?

At a recent news conference, Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele said: “Some banks have approached us discreetly to discuss a settlement. We are no longer interested in those discussions.” “To date, no bank has answered on the merits of the case. I don’t know if there’s hope that somehow this is going to go away.” “This may take years. We have the patience for this. What we want is an answer as to what happened to trading desks of these banks.”

The Commission launched the investigation in April 2015. So far, none of the 17 banks named in the investigation has pleaded to the merits of the case.

Barclays Africa Group, a regional unit of Barclays Plc, has been granted conditional immunity from prosecution in return for its cooperation in the investigation while the local arm of Citigroup was handed a reduced fine of 5 million dollars for agreeing to cooperate.

We must be careful not to develop tunnel vision in terms of who we view as not worthy of our scorn – we must not allow the media and other vested groups to determine who is bad and who is good for South Africa and allow their narrative to overwhelm us in thinking they- the Guptas- are rotten apples influencing key decision making processes affecting the economy.

There are others who are willfully and knowingly manipulating the financial system and have been allowed to get away with it for far too long.

South Africa is a developmental state, with poverty and unemployment rife. We must not allow the financial institutions to run roughshod over our sovereignty and push our country’s ambitions back. 

And as has been pointed out in the Open Secrets’ series, Declassified: Apartheid Profits, it is the South African citizen in post-democratic South Africa who has had to foot the bill for the banks’ (here and abroad).

“In 1994, democratic South Africa inherited the mountainous debt owed to the financial institutions that bankrolled apartheid. The Swiss banks were among the debt collectors that came knocking. For decades, these banks knowingly propped up the regime that they saw as creating enough order for them to use the country as back-up for their corporations in times of war. When that regime was dismantled, they demanded repayment from all South Africans. These banks have never been forced to account for their role in funding oppression.”

There undoubtedly needs to me more rigorous interrogation on the role and responsibility of banks in our country. They can no longer be given a blank cheque to run amok, then come and want to buy or manipulate their way out of taking responsibility for their malevolent actions. 

The resurgence of the thinking that the reserve bank should be state owned in light of much criticism around part of its monetary policy, specifically its position on inflation targeting, is a welcomed debate that should posture the state to play a more meaningful role in keeping the banks in check. There should also be a more aggressive push to enable the establishment and aggressive participation of local small banks, this must be done through creating the relevant legislation and support systems to ensure an evening out if the playing field. 

The banks which stand accused of rigging the rand should not be allowed to cut secret deals, they should be made to publicly account or defend their alleged actions. They have a duty to not only their shareholders, but to the South African people. 

Lwando Majiza is a NEC Member of SASCO and its National Organiser

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