Absa lifeboat: The real problem with the PP's report

Jeremy Gordin on why we should be concerned with what Busisiwe Mkhwebane has got up to

I shall – uncharacteristically – cut straight to the proverbial chase.

According to Rob Rose in the FM, “Shortly before 8pm on Wednesday December 21, four days before Christmas, an e-mail popped into the inbox of Barclays Africa’s lawyers. Attached was the ‘provisional report’ from new public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, detailing how she believes Absa should be forced to repay R1.1bn plus interest to government for the post-1985 bailout of the now-defunct Bankorp.” (See here.)  

Well, I think the public protector’s “provisional report” on the SA Reserve Bank’s “lifeboat” to ABSA/Bankorp, which should rather be called the “SARB boetiebaantjie,” is one of the worst things that could have happened to us.

By “us,” I mean those Seffricans who hoped that Mkhwebane would carry on the principled work of her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela; would, in short, become one of the few voices making an independent, rational and evidential stand against the stinking tsunami of malfeasance that has been, and still is, washing through the corridors of power (and elsewhere) in this country.

Think about it. There are DA MPs who try to cut to the core of corruption. But, in the view of many of my landslayt (country people), they are merely stooges “playing politics”. Julius “Little Julie” Malema and his merry people have also, by way of trying to whack President Jacob Zuma in the cojones, done their bit “against corruption,” especially when it came to the Nkandla rip-off. But I suspect they, or many of them, including Little Julie, will be co-opted to the pursuit of corruption (in various guises), once they realize they too can put their snouts into the trough.

There are still some journalists and commentators (a few on Politicsweb), unfortunately mainly old farts, who do a really decent “investigative” job. But the mainstream media is as interested in, or (more to the point) capable of, speaking truth to power as I am desirous of having my fingers amputated. As for the younger journalists – and obviously I am generalizing – they seem more devoted to political correctness than to anything approaching “the truth.” There are still some voices crying in the wilderness; Paul Hoffman SC of Accountability Now – who apparently went to Madonsela years ago about the SARB boetiebaantjie – is one such voice; but such as he are few and far between.

And there are of course still some apparently principled office bearers; I am thinking, for example, of Pravin Gordhan and the fellows in the finance ministry who refused the sweet lure of the Saxonwold shebeen. And there are more of those elsewhere in government (well, I hope so).

As for those among us who are “vocal” in the Fallist and BLF movements, etc., and on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, etc. – BLF leader Andile Mngxitama is a nice example – their main interests seem to be to stick it to the (white) man and to type abusive and startlingly irrational horse manure. 

In short, had it not been for Madonsela and her reports on Nkandla and (though incomplete) state capture, we would have all been much, much poorer – and I’m not talking about money or land.

Consequently, when Mkhwebane got the job as PP, there were many who had serious misgivings. As I said, Madonsela had been a major bulwark for all of us, and there were those concerned that Mkhwebane would be but a pale imitation, or worse. But, hey, Mkhwebane had large shoes to fill, ones getting crisped by the massive spotlight of the media and the rancour of many powerful people ... and one wants to give people a chance, doesn’t one?

Now comes this “provisional report”. What’s the problem, you want to know? To begin with, it’s said by those who know (see Rob Rose’s article and an excellent one by Hilary Joffe in Business Day  see here) to be a shoddy piece of work – on a basic, technical level.

Mkhwebane “can’t seem to tell the difference between ‘borrowed’ and ‘lent’” and, more worrying, Mkhwebane apparently did not bother to read the 122-page report issued in 1999 by Judge Dennis Davis and a panel. The Davis report concluded that the SARB boetiebaantjie was indeed illegal but that (to quote Joffe) “it was simply impractical to recover any benefit [from ABSA], even if it were contractually possible, which was also a question mark.”

But let us pause at this point and consider that it looks as though it wasn’t Mkhwebane who put this “provisional report” together!

It was, it seems, Madonsela who wrote it (“Not your best piece of work, dear,” as my teachers would say), even though Mkhwebane has obviously tacked on a new or different conclusion and recommendation. Mkhwebane has written that remedial action should include Absa paying R2.25-billion to the fiscus for “an apartheid-era bailout”. She has also recommended that the president consider a commission of inquiry into state looting during apartheid. (Hello? I thought the Truth commission was long gone, like a turkey through the corn.)

As the late, lamented Manuel of Fawlty Towers might have asked: Wha’ hoppen’? It seems Mkhwebane got hoist with her own petard.

This, my friends, is a gorgeous Seffrican tableau: on the one hand, Mkhwebane was continually berated for not being another Madonsela, so she took Madonsela’s report (which is clearly a mess but which Mkhwebane figured would be a winner – after all, Madonsela “wrote” it); on the other hand, Mkhwebane added a little wiggle of her own – “here’s a classic case of ‘apartheid looting’ or ‘white monopoly capital’ at work and ABSA moet kak en betaal” – only to find herself  literally sans-culottes.

What can we conclude? Either Mkhwebane is stupid, incompetent, stressed, or out of her depth, or all four of those. But it is, alas, worse than merely a case of incompetence or having a few sessions with a psychologist, etc. The question we have to ask is why would she choose this particular report for her first appearance playing for the national team?

As my bubbe might have said: “Ach, tuchis, it’s obvious, my boychik.” Either Mkhwebane is even more “compromised” – i.e. tied to certain group of people – than we feared; or someone has been whispering in her shell-like ear (pretty loudly too). Or both.

What is a leading Seffrican pursuit at the minute? Answer: sticking it to the (white) man (person, if you prefer). Read your twitter feed; check out Politicsweb’s “Raceballs” collections; listen to some of the folk on the radio, the hosts as well as the callers. It seems white folk just ain’t what they were cracked up to be by people such as, say, Nelson Mandela. They break their promises, they don’t want to give away their land for nothing, they call people horrible names, they whine a lot about rubbish such as efficiency, fairness, and torpid bureaucracy, and they don’t want to let other people into the national rugby team. Above all, they are insufficiently contrite about being colonialist, (allegedly) well-educated, rich, and white.

Second, what is one of the most popular tropes in the land right now? Answer: Attacking “white monopoly capital,” which for obvious reasons is interchangeable, mutatis mutandis, with “apartheid looting” (where do you think the whites got the money from?). What is white monopoly capital? It means that the nasty white okes own everything in the land – and wield this power. Now, according to my research, white South Africans own about 24 percent of the JSE, directly or indirectly, which is less than the 26 percent owned by either black South Africans or the government through The Public Investment Corporation. But, hey, facts are colonialist nonsense. It’s also extremely useful to have a new, 21st century version of the “swart gevaar” or “rooi gevaar.”

And who likes to use this handy trope a great deal? Answer: mainly it’s the Zuptas, which is shorthand for the Zuma clique and all those who want to be allowed to dive into the feeding troughs without being bothered by such codswallop as the laws, corporate ethics, international financial mores (is that an oxymoron?) and investment practices, accountability, and plain common sense. E.g., it doesn’t generally work to appoint someone who knows sweet Fanny Adams about finance as the minister thereof nor should anyone but the president be offering jobs to senior government officers.

And who has been thrown into the “white monopoly capital” laager, whether they like it or not? Well, because he apparently had the audacity to insist on fiscal discipline, Gordhan has – and so have many others whom you might not expect to see there. As Rob Rose tells us: “Mkhwebane conveniently manages to weave all the Guptas’ [and, funnily enough, Zuma’s] bogeymen into one neat package. So, the report accuses Trevor Manuel, Thabo Mbeki and Tito Mboweni of ‘unconstitutional behaviour’ for ignoring a 1997 report prepared for government by shadowy [sic] intelligence operation Ciex.”

But never mind Mbeki and Mboweni; who else gets tarred with the “white monopoly capital” brush these days and what’s he doing at the moment? Well, blow me down with a feather: it’s the bullock-befriending ex-trade unionist, one Cyril Ramaphosa, who happens to be running for the ANC presidency – not a pursuit looked on with happiness by the Zuptas and all who sail in her (so to speak).

So, you see, Mkhwebane’s provisional report on the SARB boetiebaantjie was ostensibly a stroke of genius – a public relations coup. In one fell swoop, she seemed to fill the shoes of Madonsela while diverting the country from present pressing issues of corruption (state capture report?); she appealed to the populists (dastardly white men should be called to account; “apartheid looting”); she appealed to the Zupta clique and its followers (“white monopoly capital” at it again); and for good measure, she gave Ramaphosa a little kick in the tuchis.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mkhwebane’s move was planned by one of those allegedly brilliant spin doctors from England or maybe even Donald Trump’s campaign manager. Or maybe Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service). Or maybe a smarty-pants who hangs out in Pretoria or Johannesburg.

One problem though: Mkhwebane has cocked it up and at the same time revealed who and what she is and who calls her shots. That’s why she is clearly very bad news.

* In 1996, Jeremy Gordin, Benjamin Trisk and Bob Aldworth wrote The Infernal Tower: The damage to people, careers and reputations in corporate South Africa (Contra Press, Johannesburg), about the Absa/Bankorp lifeboat and related matters.