South Africa

amaBhungane: Where is Optimum’s R1.3 billion mine rehab money?

By amaBhungane 15 October 2016

One of the “suspicious and unusual” transactions identified in the Financial Intelligence Centre's (FIC) report attached to Gordhan’s affidavit is a transfer of R1.3-billion allegedly removed from the Optimum Mine rehabilitation trust.  By Susan Comrie, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole for AMABHUNGANE.

Tegeta Exploration and Resources, owned by the Guptas and Duduzane Zuma, agreed to buy Optimum Coal Mine in November last year.

It remains a controversial deal, beset by allegations of political interference, specifically because Mosebenzi Zwane, the Gupta-linked mining minister, accompanied Tegeta to Switzerland, allegedly to negotiate the deal with then-owners Glencore – a claim he denies.

As part of the R2.1 billion deal, Tegeta inherited a R1.5-billion trust set aside in terms of legislation to fund the environmental clean up when Optimum is mined out in about 2030.

However, Gordhan was alarmed that the department of mineral resources provided “written approval” to allow R1.3 billion from the environmental trust fund “to be transferred from the account closed by Standard Bank to the Bank of Baroda”.

The Bank of Baroda, a state-owned Indian bank with a small presence in South Africa, has long been bankers to the Gupta family and unlike other banks have not closed their accounts.

There has has been much speculation that Tegeta intended to raid the rehabilitation fund in order to repay loans they likely obtained to buy Optimum in the first place.

Although Gordhan clarifies that he is not aware whether the transaction went through, or that if it did what happened to the funds, he raises concerns, saying: “If those funds from the trust were to [be] spent on anything other than genuine mining rehabilitation, it will expose the fiscus not only to the loss of tax revenue [but] also put the burden of mining rehabilitation on the fiscus.”

amaBhungane approached the department of mineral resources in August after allegations emerged that Optimum’s rehab trust had been raided.

Spokesperson Ayanda Shezi finally responded in September, denying that the department had granted permission for the funds to be accessed: “This is false. The department has never granted any permission for the right-holder to access funds in the trust.”

Shezi went on to say that Optimum’s rehab fund was sitting at R162-million in a Stanbic account.

When amaBhungane pointed out that Zwane had told Parliament in April that the fund was sitting at R1.5 billion, and that the figure provided by the department appeared to confirm that roughly R1.3 billion been carried out on Optimum’s rehab fund, Shezi said she had made a mistake.

“There has been no withdrawal made from the trust fund. The figure reported earlier of R162-million was an error.”

When pushed on whether she was providing up to date figures, Shezi said the department was unaware of the current status of the trust and was only relying on figures from the 2015 audited financials.

At the time, Howa vehemently denied that any withdrawals had been made from the fund.

What’s not clear from the FIC report is whether the fund was transferred to Bank of Baroda in May, and if so, if the fund was merely transferred to a new bank or if the funds were accessed and used for other purposes.

Correspondence from June between Optimum’s business rescue practitioners and the Reserve Bank suggests that the May transfer did not go through, but that Optimum still intended to transfer the fund.

In an urgent letter, the business rescue practitioners asked the Reserve Bank for clarity on whether the funds could be transferred to Bank of Baroda in light of press reports that Baroda was under investigation.

The Reserve Bank’s response is not included in the court papers, and when amaBhungane approached the business rescue practitioners last month they declined to comment on any questions relating to the fund. DM

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