Parliament

The VBS debacle – from debate in the House to ministerial briefing to committee, more questions than answers

By Marianne Merten 24 October 2018

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) deputy president Floyd Shivambu during a media briefing on allegations that EFF and Shivambu benefited from the VBS bank looting on October 16, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

There was much sound and fury in Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on the VBS mutual bank heist. But aside from nods to the tens of thousands of rural poor, workers and stokvels set to lose their invested savings, the two-hour debate in the National Assembly was really about party politicking and political point scoring. A little more of the reality of the impact of the VBS R2-billion debacle had emerged in committee a good few hours earlier.

EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu decided attack was the best strategy from the speaker’s podium of the House. Holding the party line that the EFF had nothing to do with the VBS debacle and that one could not be held responsible for the actions of relatives, Shivambu put the blame on the “opportunism of the National Treasury and Reserve Bank”. Neither he nor the EFF had ever benefited “anything in the VBS looting and so-called heist”, he insisted.

Arguing that he was flattered about the chant “Pay back the money” that had accompanied his earlier appearance at the podium on an earlier legislative debate, Shivambu said he took that to be proof the EFF was setting the corruption busting pace. “Sages say imitation is the most sincere, but artless, form of flattery… We are flattered.”

But it’s one of those parliamentary peculiarities that Shivambu was protected from digs, predominately from the DA, about his brother Brian Shivambu’s alleged role in the VBS saga by the same rule the ANC had used to shield former president Jacob Zuma from EFF and DA digs, be it over Nkandla or any of the scandals that hit his time in office.

If there are any claims of wrongdoing, those can be brought to the House only through a substantive motion. And that’s a whole different process that requires writing to the Speaker, and notice before it can be brought to the House. That was the ruling from the presiding officer’s chair, as was the ruling that “There’s no report before the House to say the EFF heist of VBS”.

According to Advocate Terry Motau’s “The Great Bank Heist” report to the banking regulator, the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), R2-billion was looted from the bank to a group of politically connected persons. That report mentioned 53 people, including Brian Shivambu, all of whom had benefited from, among others, gratuitous payments. Councils, who are by law not allowed to invest in mutual banks, did just that – 14 municipalities deposited R1,576,938,563 with VBS, some of it equitable share transfers from national coffers meant for service delivery projects.

The ruling during Tuesday’s debate didn’t stop DA MP Phumzile Van Damme, in her speech, from raising “uBhuti ka Floyd” to link Shivambu to his brother and VBS looting, while being repeatedly interrupted by EFF points of order; or DA MP David Maynier calling EFF leader Julius Malema “commander-in-thief”, in a play on the party’s commander-in-chief title, and hitting the ANC for being at the “centre of the heist” through its Limpopo structures.

The EFF was in fightback mode, challenging every comment that could be seen as critical of it and its leader. Not withdrawing the description of Malema as “Mickey Mouse commander” got Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald booted off the podium, with speaking time still left on the clock. It got heated with threats of violence coming, not for the first time, from the EFF benches: “This man wants to be moered (beaten),” said EFF MP Nazier Paulsen.

It was fractious. Finance committee chairperson, ANC MP Yunus Carrim, hit the nail on the head. Looking at the DA and EFF on the opposition benches, he pointed out how they worked together in various municipalities, but attacked each other in the House. “Isn’t that the hypocrisy?”

Taking the ANC line of “decisive action” by the police, Hawks and prosecuting authority to bring the perpetrators to book, Carrim said: “Who would you trust, independent investigators, or Mr Shivambu, whose brother is alleged of wrongdoing?”

Tuesday’s debate, brought on the back of an ANC motion entitled “The great bank heist, a matter of public importance”, may have established the mould for any other to take place in the run-up to the 2019 elections.

But more of a sense of what is going on with VBS emerged hours before the debate at Parliament’s co-operative governance committee when MPs were briefed by Co-operative Governance Minister Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize is under pressure. Not only because 14 councils invested R1.57-billion with VBS Mutual Bank in contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA), but also because it seems he’s getting the runaround.

According to the MFMA, and local government investment regulations, municipalities may only use banks registered under the Banks Act; mutual banks are not.

Mkhize categorically told the committee on Tuesday morning:

What happened should not have happened.”

It wasn’t due to “inability” or “ignorance” as those had been ruled out.

They have all the right qualifications and skills.”

He went on to list the qualifications of the municipal managers and chief financial officers at the involved councils: all had appropriate graduate and post-graduate qualifications on financial management, accountancy and public administration, with two exceptions – one an education degree, another a mechanical engineering degree.

All affected councils are on the list of 87 municipalities that are dysfunctional. All of the 14 councils that went on to bank with VBS struggle with at least one of their core responsibilities, including service delivery and paying creditors within 30 days. Projects from bulk water to road and electricity supplies have either been suspended or implementation stopped.

That Mkhize is being given the runaround in trying to get councils to do what they must – and also their provincial bosses, the local government MECs – emerged clearly, too.

In a series of meetings with mayors, municipal administrators and local government MECs, he’s repeatedly been told, “We didn’t know”. National Treasury sent a notification to inform councils that they could not invest in VBS, or any mutual banks for that matter.

The response? “We didn’t see that.”

Two councils acknowledged they had done wrong, the others stayed on message: “We didn’t know.”

But the minister told MPs: “People knew what they were doing… It’s always the clever ones, who understand the system, that will tend to crook it. You don’t get a sweeper to go and manipulate the financial management system.”

And so Mkhize has called in the forensic auditors: three auditing firms in three provinces (North West, Limpopo, Gauteng) to be completed by the latest in November 2018. It’s those forensic audits that would provide the evidence for what Mkhize billed as a comprehensive lawsuit, with the Cogta ministry laying the charges itself to “chase and try recover the money”.

While Motau’s report traced the money as it left VBS, Mkhize told MPs, the document was “not helpful” with regards to the R1.57-billion the municipalities had deposited in contravention of the MFMA.

There may be the political will to try recover as much of the looted R2-billion as is possible – that also emerged in Tuesday afternoon’s debate in the House. As far back as May 2018 MPs of the finance committee had been told it was highly unlikely any of the municipalities’ monies were recoverable. And retail depositors were protected up to a certain threshold, above which recovery of invested monies was uncertain.

At the time, the finance committee urged Cogta to take decisive action against the senior managers who may have had a hand in this debacle. It did so again last week in anticipation of another briefing on the VBS debacle on 7 November by Motau, regulators, the Reserve Bank, the police, Hawks and others.

But on Tuesday, Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), is scheduled to be briefed on progress in the VBS debacle by Cogta, the Reserve Bank and National Treasury.

Scopa chairperson Themba Godi told Daily Maverick the law had been transgressed.

It’s a case of what happened? How do you stop it from happening again?”

And that is what is at the heart of the VBS bank heist – and the question that was left unanswered in Tuesday’s debate in the House. DM

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