South Africa, Politics

Absa Public Protector report and other ghosts of things past may come back to haunt ANC

By Marianne Thamm 19 January 2017

It is no coincidence that Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s version of former PP Thuli Madonsela’s preliminary report into the Absa/Bankcorp bailout was leaked just as President Zuma, the Gupta family and those who have illegally benefited from State Capture are slowly being cornered and squeezed. And while the Twitter rent-a-crowd predictably howled “white minority capital”, the most obvious question is why the ANC, when it was informed of it all back in the mid ‘90s, did nothing about grotesque apartheid-era plunder? Someone who was there at the start is veteran journalist and lawyer Martin Welz, editor of Noseweek. He spoke to Daily Maverick. By MARIANNE THAMM.

History is a needle
for putting men to sleep
anointed with the poison
of all they want to keep”

Leonard Cohen

Martin Welz has the honour of being one of the most sued investigative journalists in South Africa. In the over two decades that he has published his monthly investigative magazine, Noseweek, he has been threatened by crooked lawyers, tax dodgers, businessmen, corporate robber barons and politicians and survived it all.

He is, in other words, no mafikizolo like so many who have weighed in with regard to the peculiar leak of the Public Protector’s preliminary report (which according to her own office has “no status”) into Absa’s bailout of Bankcorp via the Reserve Bank back in the awful old days.

Over on Twitter, that sometime echo chamber of ignorance and stupidity, there are predictable howls of “white minority capital” and the unfortunate leap of logic that corruption by apartheid-era businesses and politicians somehow excuses the current plunder of state resources – two wrongs making a right in defence of President Zuma, the Gupta family and other bottom feeders.

Even before launching Noseweek in 1993 (inspired by the British satirical magazine Private Eye), Welz, who worked as a journalist for the Sunday Times, was sued for R180-million for defamation by a Lebanese businessman, Salim el Hajj, who Welz had accused of fraud. Hajj later bolted and the case was dropped.

In 1996 Welz made legal history (and almost lost his magazine in the process) after being sued for R1.6-million for defamation by Dr Robert Hall, an American tax dodger and millionaire dentist Welz had exposed as a fraud. Welz defended himself in the six-month trial which took place in a hostile legal environment.

The precedent had been set by a 1993 Appeal Court ruling against the anti-apartheid newspapers Vrye Weekblad (edited by Max du Preez) and the Mail & Guardian. The former head of the police forensics laboratory, General Lothar Neethling, had sued both newspapers after reports about apartheid-era death squads and the fact that Neethling had supplied poison to these assassins to murder anti-apartheid activists. The original court case bankrupted Vrye Weekblad and led to its closure.

But somehow Welz survived with his reputation intact, his appetite for exposing corruption undiminished.

Which is why in 1995 the journalist found himself in London talking to Michael Oatley, a former MI6 intelligence agent and then current director of a company called CIEX.

You see where this is going.

Welz had been summoned to London by former businessman Julian Askin who had bought into the South African company Tollgate, a public investment company listed on the JSE and London Stock Exchange. At the time, Hennie Diedricks, former chief executive of Tollgate, Volkskas and TrustBank and who had been accused by liquidators of stealing R18.9-million, had left South Africa for London to explain to Askin “a chain of deceit and collusion stretching to the heart of the Afrikaner business establishment, and to the door of the South African Reserve Bank itself”, as the Mail & Guardian reported in 1996.

Welz had been asked to investigate and cross-check documents and Diedericks’ version of events.

I was in contact with many of the affected parties at the time and met Oatley when I was involved in the Tollgate investigation. It was then when the issue of the Absa lifeboat surfaced,” Welz told Daily Maverick.

Oatley, said Welz, is a “hugely legitimate character” who had in fact been instrumental in negotiating the IRA ceasefire in the mid-1970s and finally the peace process in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

Oatley had offered to do the work on behalf of the South African government for a “recovery fee” which means he would not have been paid if attempts at restitution proved unsuccessful. The retired agent had persuaded then President Thabo Mbeki that the investigations should be done.

Government accepted and was enthusiastic and the then head of State Security, Billy Masetlha, signed the contract on behalf of government,” said Welz.

Author Stephen Ellis, in his book External Mission – The ANC in Exile, describes Oatley (albeit not by name) as a “distinguished former MI6 officer” who had estimated the theft or misappropriation of public funds during the apartheid era at no less than R200-billion.

The Reserve BankAbsa/Bankcorp “lifeboat” which Oatley’s CIEX report claimed amounted to a recoverable R3.2-billion is only one aspect of of the massive CIEX probe which also included the possible recovery of R5.5-billion from Aerospatiale/Daimler Crysler as well as payments to Luxembourg accounts, managed through the Paris embassy, totalling R14.4-billion.

The Absa bailout is just small change. They found 536 offshore Armscor bank accounts. The big guys they could have gone for is Deutshe Bank, they could have gone to the Reserve bank and got the documents but that didn’t happen,” said Welz.

Welz added that the then Reserve Bank governor, Chris Stals, “kept giving different versions of what had happened (with the Absa bailout) and threatened people with jail when we tried to find out.”

In the end CIEX and Oatley (the contract with government was signed on October 6, 1997) were paid for a year and delivered several reports on a “vast spread of corruption”, according to Welz.

On Tuesday, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe questioned “the different handling by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of the CIEX report and the State Capture Report”. Forgetting of course that the State of Capture report was a final one and that the Absa investigation was preliminary and thus has “no status” according to the Public Protector’s office.

Mantashe told journalists the ANC was “eager” to see the CIEX report as “the report was written [but] never published. That is the issue, why is it not published because, you see, these things create perceptions and strengthen them that this report was written kept under the lid.”

Perhaps he should give President Thabo Mbeki a call because according to Welz, “The ANC government was told in a secret report how apartheid-era government operatives stole hundreds of billions from the State – and how vast sums could be recovered from those responsible and the European bankers who helped them hide the loot. But mysteriously, the Mbeki Cabinet and the Reserve Bank decided to do nothing about it. Why?”

A characteristically candid Welz told Daily Maverick that “instead of prosecuting and saying ‘get the bastards’, the government said ‘tell us how they did it’.”

Writing in Noseweek in 2010 Welz opined, “Quite apart from its startling contents, the document [the CIEX report) casts a whole new light on Thabo Mbeki’s and Trevor Manuel’s roles in setting up the 1999 arms deal as a major source of party funding: we now know that they had just been shown how, for more than a decade, their Afrikaner nationalist predecessors had done many similarly corrupt kick-back deals!”

He maintains that Stals’s successors at the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni and Gill Marcus, “knew that the illegal gifts which the SARB chose to disguise as ‘lifeboats’ in fact amounted to plain fraud – and that they had cost the general population many billions, while contributing hugely to the personal wealth of just a few members of the Afrikaner elite of the apartheid era.”

The real mystery, Welz said, is why would first Mboweni, then Marcus, both senior, well-informed members of the ANC’s post-apartheid government, feel the need not only to plead ignorance of the matter but declare it ‘non-existent’ – and definitely not up for discussion? In effect, feel obliged to cover up major misdeeds of the apartheid era?

Had the ANC government – on Thabo Mbeki’s watch – chosen to use CIEX’s evidence of the apartheid elite’s misdeeds as a handy precedent, rather than expose them? Or had they simply used their secret knowledge as a lever to extract a quid pro quo from Absa and its shareholders, in the form of a ‘comfortable relationship’ whereby Absa extended generous credit to the party and its membership elite? A comfortable relationship that has continued since UK banking group, Barclays, took control of Absa. (Barclays also played a leading role in financing the scandalous 1999 arms deals).”

The Public Protector has lodged a complaint with SAPS about the leak which apparently, according to her office, occurred when an official sent the entire report to those concerned for their responses and not just sections which related to them.

She’s just covering her back is my thought on the matter,” said Welz.

It is important to note also that it was corruption buster, Advocate Paul Hoffman, of Accountability Now, who lodged the original complaint with regard to the Absa matter with Madonsela’s office. Madonsela told SAfm this week that she had been hamstrung in the investigation because of her acutely under-financed office, a situation which suits those who found themselves in her crosshairs.

Meanwhile the ANC Women’s League has called for “a full investigation into the alleged looting of state resources during apartheid”. It is yet to call for the same with regard to the looting of state resources under the ANC’s watch…

…Be careful what you wish for.

Whoever leaked the Public Protector’s preliminary report into the Absa lifeboat could be likened to a diver in a wetsuit with fresh steaks attached to it, about to plunge into a shark tank. The predator who might slither out from the shadows might not be the one you expected.

For now, whoever it was has successfully diverted attention from the State of Capture report, President Zuma’s embattled leadership and a whole floater-load of cronies who are being systematically and slowly flushed out.

Martin Welz is not thinking of slowing down. If you catch him on a good day he is a walking encyclopedia of the hoodlums and rogues who occupy high places in government, the corporate and business world both past and present. And they have, he reckons, learned much from each other. His next issue of Noseweek, out soon, is going to be a cracker for sure. DM

Photo by Cory Doctorow via Flickr

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