VBS scandal: ‘They took the very little we had and bought fancy items’

VBS scandal: ‘They took the very little we had and bought fancy items’
VBS Mutual Bank customers queue outside the branch, hoping to withdraw money they saved for stokvels and burial societies on 20 June 2018 in Thohoyandou, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Antonio Muchave)

Poor, hard-working people such as Margaret Chauke saved their money at VBS for years. Then the bank was looted – and closed. They won’t trust banks again.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Before she opened a savings account with the now defunct VBS Bank, hawker Margaret Chauke (73) used to hide her money in a mielie sack and stash it away in a vegetable field behind her house.

But on the advice of other women from her village she opened an account with VBS in Thohoyandou, about 45km away.

The bank, which was placed under curatorship after being declared insolvent and bankrupt in 2018, was formed as the Venda Building Society in 1982 by the Venda homeland administration.

In 1992, VBS was transformed into a mutual bank, catering mostly for civil servants from the Venda homeland, rural cooperatives, burial societies and small businesspeople. “VBS was our bank. It was a bank that looked after us old women,” Chauke said from her home this week.

About 70km away in Tshikombane, a village in the Thulamela local municipality, Nyawasedza Raphunga (71) echoes Chauke’s reasoning. The two women, although they have never met, walked a parallel path in relation to the bank.

Raphunga started saving with the bank in the 1980s while employed as a general worker in the Venda homeland’s public works department. Her salary was paid through the bank and some of her money was put in an investment account.

“I chose VBS because it was a Venda bank created by our Chief [Patrick] Mphephu to keep our savings. It was for the elderly specially to make things easy for us. But when we heard that VBS is no longer functioning, I was crushed,” said Raphunga.

When Chauke eventually opened an account with VBS in the early 1990s, she was shocked to discover she had managed to save around R8,000 in her mielie sack. She has never been to school and has very little understanding of how banks operate.

Initially, she was reluctant to put all her money in the bank and deposited only R5,000 and continued to save the rest the old way.

Every month she made the taxi trip to Thohoyandou, the former Venda capital where the bank had its offices and a branch to make deposits. By 2018, when the bank was reported to have been looted of close to R2-billion, she had already saved more than R60,000.

Her husband, who has since died, worked in another part of the province and only came home at month-end. The couple put their money together to build a beautiful brick house and a cottage. Her sons have also died and Chauke now lives with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren.

Margaret Chauke’s savings have now been transferred to Nedbank but, after the VBS scandal, she has little trust in the banking system. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

“I am no longer working. I am tired. This thing with VBS has caused me many problems. When I heard the bank was closing down, I got very sick. […] I have no more strength now. I survive on government money [old age pension],” said Chauke.

Chauke and Raphunga were among the crowds of elderly people who spent cold nights sleeping on cardboard boxes on the paving outside the bank’s Thohoyandou branch in the wake of the scandal.

“I was hurt. I wondered what would happen to our money. We used to sleep outside there in the queue, aiming to be the first to go in the bank. We then saw posts outside on the windows saying VBS has been shut down for good. We were scared that we would lose all our money and there was nothing we could do,” said Raphunga, looking back on that dark period in 2018 when the looting scandal broke, panicking thousands of investors.

Chauke’s savings have been secured and transferred to Nedbank, which took over the responsibility of assisting former VBS clients as a recommendation of the curator. But, not clearly understanding the banking system, Chauke is worried she could still lose her savings and asks if it’s possible to withdraw all her money and keep it at home like old times.

“I don’t trust anything. I am old. I used to go to Thohoyandou just to check if indeed VBS is closed. And when I realised it is indeed closed, I felt very sad,” Chauke said.

The SA Reserve Bank (SARB) has said that 17,894 retail depositors qualified for repayment through Nedbank branches. It further noted that 17,750 accounts were opened with Nedbank and SARB transferred R261-million to Nedbank for the payment of qualifying retail depositors.

Furthermore, SARB said the liquidator had received claims from 171 individual retail depositors, which cumulatively amounted to approximately R41.5-million. It said burial societies, stokvels and other claims constituted 240 claimants with a value of approximately R20.5-million. These depositors individually held deposits of more than R100,000 with VBS.

This week DM168 revealed how EFF leader Floyd Shivambu, who has been fingered as being among politicians who benefited from proceeds looted from the bank, splashed out hundreds of thousands of rands on Gucci, Louis Vuitton and other top brands of clothing and luxury goods.

Since the scandal broke, investors have been reluctant to speak out publicly, given that the curator’s report included, among those who allegedly benefited from the looting, big names such as VhaVenda King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana, senior ANC politicians, mayors and other influential people.

When Nyawasedza Raphunga heard reports that the VBS bank was experiencing problems due to looting of funds, she spent three nights sleeping in the cold outside the bank’s headquarters in Sibasa hoping to secure the savings she had been making since the 1980s. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

The intricacies of village life mean that, although people enjoy an open social way of living, financial matters remain closely guarded family secrets.

“I still don’t know why the bank closed. We just heard someone stole from the bank. Nobody explained the reasons behind it. Maybe others knew but I don’t know. People are scared to talk about VBS, but I talk because I used to save there. It was a Venda bank. I may not know everything, but what I’m telling you is what I saw,” said Raphunga.

Chauke has been following the reports about VBS on radio and mentions the names of many of those implicated. But she did not follow the latest reports on Shivambu’s shopping sprees. Yet, when asked what she would do with the hundreds of thousands Shivambu is alleged to have spent on clothing and bling, Chauke pauses for a while, fiddling with the blue VBS bank book where she keeps her account statements.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to lie. I have never had that amount of money in my life,” she said. Raphunga now spends her days working in her orchard, where she grows mangos, avocados and citrus fruit. She supports her unemployed children and grandchildren on her old-age state pension.

“Life without VBS is hard. We used to keep our stokvel savings at VBS. I had joined two stokvels and both used VBS.

“Our stokvel money [when the bank collapsed] we were given bit by bit as well. It was hard to bury loved ones at that time when VBS was shut down, because we couldn’t get the money we needed for burials. Instead we would end up having to top up from our own pockets to fund the burials. We would get the money in instalments, instead of a full figure,” she said.

She has withdrawn all the money that was left in her account when the curatorship process got under way.

“They gave me my money. I had started taking it little by little some time back. I was left with R13,000. I went and got it [after the curatorship began],” she said.

VBS Mutual Bank customers in long queues outside the bank, demanding their money, in Thohoyandou, Limpopo. (Photo: ANTONIO MUCHAVE / SOWETAN)

Saving through the bank helped her build a house and furnish her spacious home. Her friend suffered a stroke and later died when news of the bank’s troubles broke three years ago. “Some did die without getting their money. [But] I don’t know a lot of them since people don’t really discuss when they are going to save their money,” she said.

She too has suffered ill health and constantly worries about the bank’s demise.

“People who stole our money, stole it and bought clothes. It hurt us because these people were rich already. They took the very little we had and bought fancy items. We were trying to save the little we had for our future.”

Bail denied for one of the ‘VBS murders’ accused

One of four men accused of murdering two South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) officials who were critical of the Vhembe District Municipality’s investment of millions of rands in public funds in the defunct VBS Mutual Bank was denied bail in the Thohoyandou Magistrate’s Court in Limpopo on 19 August.

Percy Radzuma was applying for bail in the matter in which he is charged alongside his siblings, Ndivhuwo and Simon Radzuma, together with Eswatini national Thabo Sibandze.

Simon and Ndivhuwo abandoned their bail application last month. Sibandze, who faces two counts of murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition, abandoned his application for bail in 2019.

The four are accused of shooting and killing Samwu officials Timmy Musetsho and Ronald Mani in two separate incidents in Thohoyandou in 2019.

The unionists were outspoken against the decision by the Vhembe District Municipality to invest more than R300-million of public funds in the VBS Mutual Bank. The municipality has since lost the money after more than R2-billion was stolen from the bank, leading to its collapse in 2018. Mani and Musetsho were employed by the Vhembe District Municipality. Mani was gunned down in Thohoyandou in January 2019. Earlier that day, he had apparently attended a meeting at the Vhembe District Municipality’s offices. Musetsho was shot as he was entering his home in Makwarela during the same period. He later died in hospital from injuries sustained in the shooting.

In November 2018, Thabang Maupa, an ANC Ward 5 councillor in the Fetakgomo Tubatse Local Municipality in Limpopo, was shot and killed as he was closing his restaurant. Maupa was also a critic of the VBS looters and waged a social media campaign against the looting. Two suspects were later arrested in connection with his murder. The killings saw union officials fleeing their homes in fear.

Percy, Simon and Ndivhuwo Radzuma are facing six counts of murder and 10 counts of possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition. They are accused of killing Zwothe Nemulodi, a co-accused in the murder of Musetsho and Mani. Nemulodi was murdered prior to the arrest of the Radzuma brothers, who are charged with murders not related to the VBS case. Mukurukuru Media/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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