Banks shun government efforts to discuss Guptas


Johannesburg- FirstRand [JSE:FSR] and Barclays Africa Group [BGA] rebuffed efforts from government ministers to discuss the closure of bank accounts related to companies controlled by the Gupta family, accused by critics of using their friendship with President Jacob Zuma to exert influence over political appointments.

Barclays Africa’s Absa unit “respectfully declined” an offer to meet Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane over the issue, the Johannesburg-based lender said in an emailed response to questions on Wednesday. “As a bank we cannot discuss any past, present or prospective clients in such forums.”

South Africa last month established a team that also includes Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant to contact banks that had dropped the Gupta’s Oakbay Investments [JSE:ORL]as clients. FirstRand’s First National Bank, Standard Bank Group [JSE:SBK] and Nedbank Group [JSE:NED] said last month they will shut the company’s accounts. Oakbay chief executive officer Nazeem Howa said the steps are unprecedented, threaten 7 500 jobs and come even though no wrongdoing has been proved against the company or Guptas.

‘Client consent’

“FirstRand has not met with any government delegation on the Oakbay issue,” Sam Moss, spokesperson for the Johannesburg-based lender, said in an emailed response to questions.

Questions over the Guptas' influence over the president mounted after senior officials from the governing African National Congress in March stepped forward with allegations that the wealthy Indian family offered them cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. That spurred a probe by the party and another by the public protector. The Guptas deny any wrongdoing. Zuma has said only he has the authority to appoint ministers.

“Nedbank has always enjoyed a very positive relationship with government,” chief executive officer Mike Brown said in an emailed response to questions. “We would approach any meeting with government in a spirit of constructive engagement but would not discuss the banking relationships of any of our clients, due to banker-client confidentiality, unless we receive client consent.”

Cabinet briefing

Standard Bank declined to comment in an emailed response to questions. Cabinet is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and typically has a briefing the next day. The task team has met with the banks and will submit its report to cabinet, Oliphant said in response to questions at a briefing to journalists in Cape Town on Tuesday.

The banks acted separately and independently when deciding to stop offering services to the family, the Banking Association South Africa said in a statement last month. Banks must comply with laws, such as money laundering rules, and need to ensure that their clients abide by these regulations, the association said.

Mutual & Federal Insurance has also stopped doing business with the Gupta’s Oakbay Investments, Reuters reported on Tuesday, citing a Mutual & Federal document. Mutual & Federal denied its underwriting arm Credit Guarantee Insurance Corp of Africa withdrew cover on Wednesday.

“Reference to Credit Guarantee withdrawing its insurance cover on Oakbay Investments is factually incorrect,” Raimund Snyders, CEO of Mutual & Federal, said in an emailed response to question on Wednesday. “Any CGIC action relating to subsidiaries of Oakbay Investment Group to date has been within the normal course of business and in line with standard business processes.”

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