It is a Monday in June 2016 and the Executive Mayor of Capricorn District Municipality in Limpopo, Gilbert Kganyago, is angry.
His exasperation is directed at Mariette Venter, chartered accountant (CA [SA]) and acting chief financial officer of the municipality, who joined him minutes earlier at the circular table in his municipal office in Polokwane.
Kganyago has summonsed Venter to account for her resolute instruction to the management of VBS Mutual Bank that morning in which she threatened to recall a municipal investment of more than R60-million. The bank could not provide its credit rating and investment grading – documents Venter needed to report back to the municipality’s audit committee. Capricorn District Municipality invested in VBS at the instance of Kganyago in December 2015, when Venter was at home on maternity leave.
So, on that Monday morning, Venter was hauled to his office in order to explain her conduct to Kganyago and a table full of his municipal henchmen.
To this day, Venter remembers that discussion well: “Who do you think you are to make and withdraw investments of the municipality?” Kganyago wanted to know.
Stunned, Venter allowed a moment of silence to hang over the table before answering.
“Well, I am the CFO,” she said. “Initiating and withdrawing investments are part of my daily duties, it is my job.”
At that moment, Venter had several pressing problems, including an 11-month-old baby at home and the fact that there wasn’t enough money in the municipal bank account to pay salaries the following Friday. With pay day less than five days away and the Municipal Finance Management Act backing her decisions all the way, a truculent Executive Mayor didn’t count as one of her problems.
She was wrong. Venter couldn’t have known then that VBS Mutual Bank would spectacularly implode roughly two years after her altercation with Kganyago. She was unaware that her subsequent complaint to the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), lodged when VBS refused to pay back the money, would form part of a dynamic ripple effect which in the end would shine a spotlight on institutionalised criminality. She was also in the dark about accusations circulating in VBS that she was a “white lady” who didn’t want to invest in a black bank.
“I didn’t know any of this. I remember telling the municipal manager at the time that a ‘lost’ R60-million could lose me my reputation and my job, and I wasn’t about to allow that,” Venter said.
High-flying businessmen and the politically connected robbed the bank into insolvency, a forensic investigation led by advocate Terry Motau and law firm Werksmans announced in October 2018. Their investigation was initiated by the SARB in April 2018 after officials from the central bank and National Treasury connected the dots and realised that they may have been lied to. The investigation found that 53 businessmen, including politicians and the politically connected, robbed the poor and vulnerable VBS-depositors of at least R1.8-billion. While Venter “stood up to immense pressure”, their investigation unearthed evidence suggesting others received about R34-million in kickbacks from VBS for being a team player while keeping the SARB in the dark.
With the benefit of hindsight, and about three years later, Venter recalls the sequence of events. She now realises that Kganyago’s June 2016 outburst was the third red flag in a series of events that got her suspended days after speaking her mind and doing the right thing.
Venter noticed the first red flag when VBS management couldn’t produce an investment or credit rating when her staff asked for it.
The second was when a VBS official became “hostile” because Venter personally told him she would be obliged to recall the R60-million-odd investment in the absence of the necessary documents. The VBS official then threatened to stop the bank’s “sponsorship of events for the executive mayor”, Venter recalls.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care what you say, I want the bank’s certificate stating your investment and credit rating, or I want our money back’.”
Venter’s single-minded focus on getting back the municipality’s money, while ensuring that she could pay salaries without getting caught on the wrong side of the law, had serious repercussions. Days after VBS begrudgingly paid back the money, Kganyago suspended her for “contract management” – a nonsensical accusation scribbled down on a Notice of Intention to Suspend letter which didn’t elaborate on the charge. The next morning, despite a proper motivation of why she should not be suspended, Venter was issued with a suspension letter.
Her world came tumbling down.
“I realised this was about VBS, that I poked at things which were better left alone,” Venter says. “But I didn’t know, I couldn’t have known, that there were other municipalities involved and that this VBS thing would turn out to be as big as it was.”
When the news hit the community newspapers in Polokwane, the curious and concerned Venter phoned her husband to inquire about what had happened. Venter was caught in the eye of a storm she didn’t pick, nor understand.
In their forensic report titled The Great Bank Heist, Motau and Werksmans had high praise for Venter and described the events that followed:
“Venter’s intervention came at some personal cost to her. She was put under considerable pressure by Kganyago, who told her in no uncertain terms that all investment decisions fell within his sole domain. The mayor was clearly wrong in that regard. After Venter had successfully obtained the return of the monies from VBS she was rewarded for her efforts by being suspended from her post, albeit for a supposed unrelated matter. The suspension was lifted unceremoniously about a week later and Capricorn refrained from making any further deposits with VBS, making it one of the few municipalities in Limpopo that did not find itself in serious financial difficulty when VBS was placed under curatorship.”
The Motau and Werksmans forensic report is clear: VBS managers used municipalities as a cash cow in a Ponzi-like scheme to enrich themselves and their cohorts.
When Venter stood firm, she saved her reputation and her job while ensuring the continued success of the municipality. Several other municipalities have in the aftermath reported their inability to provide basic services and pay salaries. In the meantime, the SARB has instructed Anoosh Rooplal, director and head of finance services group at SNG Grant Thornton, to initiate the liquidation of VBS. Kganyago left the municipality. He was suspended as the SACP’s Limpopo Secretary in November 2018, but was later reinstated and his “explanation” accepted.
Hard lessons were learned in the process, Venter mused.
“As a chartered accountant, you get one chance. One chance to do the right thing. Once you have thrown that away, it is gone.”
She holds her breath for a moment, willing her mind to calm while composing emotions threatening to leak from her eyes.
“I guess it depends on the value you attach to your CA(SA) designation. I’ve worked hard, it took me a very long time to acquire my designation. If I have to choose between doing something wrong and my CA(SA), I choose my CA(SA). I was already 33 when I received my CA(SA). It was a long journey because life happens. I’ve tried many times, and eventually I was successful. You only have one chance to be a CA(SA). If you do one thing wrong, your name would be tarnished and your career would be history.”
What hurts the most, perhaps, is the trauma, Venter says.
“No one will ever understand the trauma and the impact this had on me and my family… I have done nothing wrong. I have been suspended for doing the right thing. The damage done by the journalists then was intense. They never come back later and say the person they wrote about was actually innocent. Now, three years later, people know. But back then it was only written that I was ‘reinstated’.”
Considering the challenges organisations now face, Venter pauses for a moment. People are under financial pressure, she then explains, so often incentives from the client is a welcome relief.
“At first you may allow one small compromise to your integrity, allowing your client to get away with one small request. And then what? Your client will always come back, saying you allowed this, can’t we talk about this one? They will push you further all the time, and you will let it go. Until you are in trouble and it is too late.”
Training those who report to her to one day stand in the shoes of the CFO at any organisation is Venter’s passion. She encourages them to make the right choices and discuss their perceived mistakes with her.
“Managers must lead by example,” she says.
“I firmly believe that you don’t necessarily walk in front of them, you take their hands and you walk with them. Otherwise, you may find that you walk in front, but you are all alone.” BM