Mariette Venter, VBS and the resistance against the looting of the state

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Mariette Venter doesn’t like the limelight. You’ve probably never heard her name and there is little reason for you to have come across her.

By all accounts, Venter is a conscientious civil servant; a chartered accountant and a stickler for the rules. Paraat and assiduous, she doesn’t stick her head out from the crowd.

Venter is also a support character, occasionally mentioned in the sensational tale of The Great Bank Heist. 

In the incredible story of large-scale looting and rampant corruption surrounding VBS Mutual Bank, she emerges as one of the unsung heroes. If you want to drill down into state capture and graft and understand what it looks like in its purest form, on the coalface, the story of Mariette Venter is perhaps one of the best illustrations. That is if advocate Terry Motau’s version of events as set out in his forensic report is to be believed.

At the time in question, Venter was the acting chief financial officer (CFO) of the Capricorn District Municipality, named after the Tropic that runs through it. Its capital city is Polokwane. The Capricorn District Municipality was ripe for the pickings and was targeted by those who were running the VBS racket. The modus operandi, in over simplistic terms, worked like this:

A middleman – a "fixer", or more euphemistically referred to as a "consultant" – would go on behalf of the VBS bank to a municipal official and attempt to solicit enormous deposits from the various municipalities or state entities into the bank, promising inflated interest. The fixer would pay bribes or "commissions" to the municipal officials, in exchange for securing the deposit. In turn, said fixer would earn a hefty "commission" of his own for "services rendered". Usually, the municipal officials were sufficiently compliant and happy to pocket the payments. But, not Venter.

Venter wasn’t happy with the municipality’s money being invested in VBS for several reasons. The Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) regulations require that a municipality invest funds with banks registered in terms of the Banks Act, and preclude investments by deposit in mutual banks. Capricorn’s investment policy also clearly stated that investments could only be made with institutions with a BBB or higher rating investment grade from one of the major rating agencies. Finally, the decision on where to invest municipal funds lay solely with the CFO, in other words, with Venter.

'Stood up to immense pressure'

But then she went on her Christmas holiday in 2015. While Venter was taking a break, and had her hands off the till, the crooks snuck in. In her absence, R60m of taxpayers' money was deposited into VBS on the apparent instruction of the mayor of Capricorn.

As you can well imagine, when Venter returned to her office and discovered the transgression, she set about doing everything in her power to get the cash back. Only, it wasn’t so simple. She wrote letters. She dealt with various bank officials. They all gave her the runaround.

At one point, one of the "fixers" who acted as an intermediary between the bank and the municipalities, was called in to help sort out the situation. He met with some VBS officials and they gave him the lowdown about Venter, insisting they weren’t trying to "run away with Capricorn’s money". He explained to Motau that he was told "what is happening there is that there is a white lady and, because this bank is a black bank, she’s resistant to investing the money with VBS". Venter was accused of outright racism. 

She came under immense pressure from her political principal. Mayor Gilbert Kganyago challenged her authority as CFO, insisting that all investment decisions fell within his sole domain. In a blatant abuse of power, Venter was bizarrely suspended from her job for a week and then reinstated. But she stood firm. When she threatened to refer the matter to the Reserve Bank, the R60m was paid back into the municipality’s coffers.

In his report, Motau lauded Venter’s defiance and resilience, saying that she had "stood up to immense pressure" and had been "unfairly suspended from her post as a result and pilloried as a racist who did not want to invest public monies in a Black bank". He found that, as a result of her intervention, Capricorn was one of the few municipalities in Limpopo that did not find itself in serious financial difficulty when VBS was placed under curatorship.

Strong women stand up 

Venter isn’t the only woman who emerges as a public hero in the report. Former acting group CFO of Prasa, Yvonne Page, fought off attempts to get the state-owned entity to deposit R1bn into VBS. Page could see that VBS was risky, and even thought it to be a Ponzi scheme. The high interest rate offered by VBS was a red flag to her. She was steadfast and principled and refused to bend the rules, saving Prasa from a terrible investment which was being pushed for political reasons.

As the terrible tale of state capture unfolded in the country over the past few years, we have repeatedly seen strong women stand up and speak truth to power. Individuals like former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who released the seminal State of Capture report.

Then there were those who found the courage to blow the whistle and come forward with the truth, like Bianca Goodson, former CEO of Trillian Management Consulting and Suzanne Daniels, former Eskom head of compliance.

For the record, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica) says Venter is one of eight of its members who it is initiating disciplinary action against for being implicated in the VBS affair. I got in touch with Venter this week to ask her some questions about her experience and the personal cost she paid, but she declined to speak to me. She’s still an employee of the municipality and she’s not allowed to talk about it.

But if Motau’s findings are indeed true, Page and Venter are yet further examples of such women who have dug in and defended us against the onslaught on public funds by the greedy, who are desperate to feed their insatiable hunger for money, at the expense of citizens.

- Wiener is an investigative reporter for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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