South Africa

Politics, South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Bancorp, BLF and the radioactive dust in our eyes

TRAINSPOTTER: Bancorp, BLF and the radioactive dust in our eyes

This is a story about how paid propaganda, real investigations, ancient cover-ups and a Chapter 9 institution have collided during the latter days of the Age of Zuma, starring Andile Mngxitama. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Over the course of the weekend, I received a series of grumpy WhatsApp messages from Black First Land First founder, Andile Mngxitama. The basic gist was that I, along with the alt-right wing London-controlled media outlet I write for, was complicit in covering up apartheid-era financial malfeasance.

I take an enormous amount of enjoyment from these love letters, which by implication link me to White white-collar crime and the loathed Economic Freedom Fighters, with whom Mngxitama famously ended his association following their electoral conference in December 2014, and who he now accuses of buffing Johann Rupert’s Rolls Royce, or some such.

Confused? Ah, but that’s the point. Mngxitama is not much one for coherence, which is why he’s so much fun. (The ideological gymnastics that have landed him in the pro-Zuma camp are a thing of beauty, especially since he doubles as the gatekeeper of Steve Biko’s legacy.)

Apart from taking the opportunity to berate me, Mngxitama was also crowing about how he and his movement had ushered into the mainstream a great big story: last Friday, a report leaked from the Public Protector’s office, claiming that between 1987 and 1995 Bankorp, first owned by Sanlam and then by Absa, had received R2.25-billion of gifts, disguised as bailouts, from the South African Reserve Bank. And while that information had been floating about in the public domain for roughly an aeon, the report apparently contained evidence leaked by former Broederbond stalwart and SARB head Chris Stals, claiming that Absa had in the 1990s committed to repaying the interest on the Reserve Bank’s thoroughly illegal lifeboat loan.

Now, that’s some real #PayBackTheMoney shit right there.

Mngxitama’s WhatsApps were followed by a blast of Twitter hashtaggery, including #MediaSilence, #BLFVictory, #ABSAMustPay and a number of other doozies. But was it true? Had the leader of Black First Land First (inexplicably acronymed BLF) cracked the story of the century?

Well, not exactly. Apartheid-era sleaze, especially during the sanctions period, ushered in a series of financial crimes of Bon Jovi ballad proportions. That billions were stolen have never been much of a secret, but nailing downright villains has always been a challenge. The uncynical view is that former finance minister Trevor Manuel and his advisors were under the impression that chasing the missing cash would destroy the delicate green shoots of the post-apartheid economy – a decision that, like so many back in those days, dispensed with justice in favour of “stability”. The more cynical view is that the ANC cut a deal with the apartheid scum, one that traded cover-ups on pre-changeover crimes for help on perpetrating post-changeover heists. To this day, the Reserve Bank and other frontline institutions refuse to relinquish their hold on old information, perhaps because it would set an uncomfortable precedent regarding the release of, ahem, newer information.

This is all really bad news, but not for everybody. Mngxitama clearly understands that in a country without either an ethical north or a coherent national narrative, “truth” becomes a palimpsest. Everyone has dirt on his or her hands; everyone is in cahoots with one Mafia hitman or another. Put another way: It’s all bullshit, so how about some of this bullshit?

Given the state of things, and if I were being generous, I’d argue that the BLF resembles an avant-garde performance art project, something that Guy Debord and the Situationists would have crafted back in the late 1960s. “Everyone wavers between the emotionally still-alive past and the already-dead future,” wrote Situationist and certified nutjob, Ivan Chtcheglov, who was arrested for trying to blow up the Eiffel Tower because its light shone into his garret.

Nowhere is his maxim more valid than in Occupied Azania.

But that, sadly, is where the comparison ends. Chtcheglov and his comrades would have rather choked on a brick than take money from the Man, while Mngxitama’s BLF are unquestionably an element of the Gupta Family’s propaganda network. (Their website, it must be said, is superior to most of those belonging to mainstream media outlets.) To this effect, they’ve prosecuted attack dog campaigns against Johann Rupert, having opened a criminal case against the global luxury goods salesman under section 4 of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities act. Last year they staged a series of “interventions” outside Madonsela’s office, demanding that she release the dirt on white capital; several BLFers were arrested for the pleasure.

BLF could have saved itself all the trouble by merely embedding from YouTube the readily available, and thoroughly gripping, Truth Be ToldProject Spear documentary, which covers the giant Bankorp con job in pornographic detail. Commissioned by the SABC, directed by Sylvia Vollenhoven, and based on an investigative report that appeared in Noseweek in 2010, it was spiked in 2013 by the national broadcaster for reasons still TBD. BLF probably didn’t promote Vollenhoven’s work because a) all the spies and bankers and journalists and civil society wonks relentlessly tracking down the money were, ugh, white, and b) it would raise uncomfortable questions regarding King Hlaudi Motsoeneng, much beloved in the BLF camp, and his motivation for spiking a comprehensive investigative work about apartheid-era sleaze-mongering.

Briefly, Project Spear reminds us that the current PP’s report finds its DNA in a document compiled by a British “asset recovery company”, called CIEX, back in 1999. An ex-spy called Michael Oatley was commissioned (and subsequently decommissioned) by then-head of the South African Intelligence Service, ANC poobah Billy Masetlha, and his report, loose as it may have been, was a stunner. The South African government, it seemed, was in line for a massive Bankorp-related payday: R3.2-billion from ABSA; between R3- to R6-billion from Sanlam and the Rupert-owned Rembrandt (both big Bankorp investors); around R5.5-billion from Aerospatiale/Daimler-Chrysler (later implicated in the Arms Deal); and a whopping R14.4-billion from Armscor, which was being used as a shell to siphon money out of the country into unpronounceable Luxembourgian financial institutions – all of it funnelled through the SARB in a series of secretive “lifeboat loans”.

This, of course, was the bare minimum: if successive ANC leaders weren’t so busy blowing their counterparts at Davos and other Swiss luxury day camps, they might have noticed that the hundreds of billions of debt the apartheid regime racked up – which the New South Africa was forced to reimburse to countries that magically transformed into “donors” overnight – was at the very least a cudgel with which to beat concessions from Big Capital. But no. Despite Madonsela’s insistence that she was inadequately resourced for a job of such forensic magnitude, and although Judges Willem Heath and Dennis Davis on separate occasions found fault with the fake bank bailout programme, the smoking gun – hard data from, say, the SARB – remained frustratingly out of reach.

I’m drawing a blank on who was president of the Republic of South Africa back when Noseweek broke the story, but he/she didn’t show any interest in pushing the investigation further, mostly because state looting is the national pastime, and he/she was otherwise engaged in the same; banks and big business serve as cashmere-lined landing pads for ex-government hacks, and prosecuting away a lucrative retirement package is just a dumb move; the old “stability” chestnut; and the original (alleged) dirty deal with the former oppressors.

But times change. The ANC’s squabbling now resembles a fight over the last square of toilet paper during a dysentery outbreak, and recovering stolen apartheid money has become a weapon in a factional war. When Zuma was forced to can the hapless Gupta plant Des van Rooyen, replacing him with the hapful Big Corporate plant Pravin Gordhan, the dormant CIEX report become a PR bomb waiting for a trigger. Enter Bell Pottinger, the British reputational enhancement firm, retained by the Guptas in order to turn them into, I dunno, the Kardashians? Absa, along with a number of other financial institutions, had unbanked the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments over the course of the last year, and it was time to get even.

Some people would term this a “conspiracy theory”. But it’s not. This is just politics at its most basic.

Which brings us neatly to the new Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who famously switched the telly channel in her office to Gupta TV, and declared at the outset of her tenure that she wanted a less adversarial relationship with government. Mkhwebane’s leaked report, still incomplete, focuses on Absa, and may serve more as a general mission statement than as a document that binds the bank into coughing up billions:

White monopoly capital” – better translated here as anyone who has recently fucked with Zuma’s paymasters – is going to remain on notice for the length of her term.

Which is not to say that the report is content free: there is, of course, that all-important, formerly missing jigsaw piece – the Omerta-breaking details whistle-blown into the PP’s office. Which brings us to the tragedy of all of this Z-grade politicking: stolen apartheid billions must be reimbursed, and it is time that serious, grown-up procedures were put in place to that effect. But President Zuma isn’t serious, and neither he nor anyone in his camp could care less about the financial evils wrought at the fall of the previous regime. They are after their own lifeboat-like billion-rand payday, which requires acquiescence – or at least an occasional blind eye – from a recalcitrant Treasury.

And so: leaked report; a whole bunch of hysterics on social media; much opining from the opiners; capped off, as it were, by the BLF claiming Absa’s scalp, while driving Silicon Valley nuts with hashtags that mean nothing outside of South Africa’s media belt.

Yup, just another serious issue gamified into oblivion. Chasing apartheid billions is real work, and it will require genuine political will. But this is not a country in which one can be against the Guptas and against mainstream corporate malfeasance. It’s a country in which apartheid-era thievery negates the current state-looting programme. Radically divided, we can’t seem to agree that the abiding trait of this country since the arrival of the Dromedaris is corruption and rot.

Perhaps, as we slide into the cleansing project of internet-bound civilisational suicide, incomprehensibility is the only honest art form. In this, Mngxitama is a master. Precisely because of his bullshit, he’s the most honest man in South Africa. After all, and at last count, the ANC have enjoyed five terms amounting to 22 years of majority governance, seven of those under Mngxitama’s newest pal, Jacob Zuma. Through them all, they’ve acted as if they’re less concerned with recovering stolen money than they have been with floating their own cash-stuffed lifeboats.

We’ll see if Mkhwebane actually publishes a completed report, one that is able to stand up to judicial scrutiny. I hope she does. Even if it results in another lengthy hashtag campaign, and another WhatsApp lecture. DM


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