'How Zwane led the fight to save the Guptas' accounts'
Former minister said banks' licences were on the line if they didn't reopen accounts, the Zondo commission hears
The testimony of four of SA’s major banks unmasked former Mineral Resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane as the key champion fighting against a decision to close the Gupta family’s bank accounts.
Testimony by senior banking officials at the Zondo commission of inquiry this week lifted the lid on how Zwane, during meetings with Standard Bank, Absa, First National Bank and Nedbank, threatened to take away the banks’ operating licences and in one instance pleaded with officials to “step in and save jobs”.
The damning testimony by banks started on Monday, but according to the commission, Zwane has yet to apply to cross-examine the bank officials.
Commission rules say Zwane has two weeks from the time he is implicated during witness testimony to apply to cross-examine those witnesses.
Inquiry lawyer Kate Hoffman confirmed on Wednesday that, as yet, no application has been forthcoming.
Zwane told Times Select he did not want to comment on evidence against him “at this stage”.
“Let me keep my view to myself for now ... I’ve made enough news.”
He also declined to comment on whether he'd seek to cross-examine any of the bank witnesses.
While Zwane – a minister in former president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet who travelled to Zurich around the time the Guptas were there to negotiate the sale of the Optimum mine – is still mulling his options, former Public Enterprises minister Lynne Brown will apply on Thursday for the right to cross-examine former deputy minister Mcebisi Jonas on aspects of his evidence to the inquiry.
Jonas testified that a Gupta brother, either Ajay or Rajesh, told him the family “looked after” Brown and former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. It is also understood that Brown wants to raise several other complaints about the inquiry’s processes.
While Brown is eager to challenge what currently appears to be hearsay evidence against her, Zwane’s silence in the face of the damning testimony given against him this week is deafening.
Nedbank CEO Michael Brown said on Wednesday that Zwane directly appealed to the bank to “step in and save jobs” by reopening closed Gupta company accounts, stressing that family members had stepped down from these companies.
Like Standard Bank’s Ian Sinton, Brown also testified that Zwane had made a seemingly veiled threat about the banks being dependent on the government for the banking licences they needed to operate.
First National Bank and Absa testified this week that they refused to meet with Zwane’s inter-ministerial committee (IMC), which was tasked with probing why the banks had chosen to close Gupta bank accounts. FNB and Absa argued that they would legally not have been in a position to discuss why they had chosen to sever ties with the Gupta family.
Brown told the inquiry he had agreed to meet the IMC because, for one thing, he initially believed that then Finance minister Pravin Gordhan would be part of the meeting. This was not the case.
Brown further testified that Zwane had promised at the beginning of the meeting that it would not involve any discussions about specific clients. That was also not true.
According to Brown, Zwane had specific information about the Gupta family’s banking arrangements, and knew that Nedbank was not the Gupta family’s “main transactional banker”.
He said Zwane went on to “suggest that Nedbank would consider stepping in to save jobs and provide an amicable solution, given that the relevant family ... had resigned from those companies”.
“I found it (the request) particularly strange ... I reminded Mr Zwane that we were not here to discuss particular client matters ... Our decision for closing the accounts was based on the reputational and business risk associated with those accounts, and that reputational and business risk would not have materially changed at all as a consequence of resignation of directors.”
He said Zwane later concluded the meeting by commenting that “he found it surprising that other banks had refused to attend the IMC meeting of government considering that banks received their licences from government”.
“I also found it to be a very strange statement. I think it felt like a form of a threat.
“It was also a technically inaccurate statement, because banks do not receive their licences from government. They receive their licences from the Reserve Bank, which is constitutionally an independent body ...
“I left the meeting with the impression that the IMC was focused on two key issues: to try and determine if there was collusion among the banks in the closure of bank accounts; and secondly to determine whether Nedbank would have appetite to step in and become the primary transactional banker for the Gupta group of companies.”
In contrast to his interaction with Zwane and the IMC, Brown said he did not feel that members of the ANC NEC – who he met prior to the IMC meeting – were trying to pressure Nedbank into reopening the Guptas’ accounts.