Banks Bashed in Battle Over South African Financial System

Updated on
  • Barclays Africa branch targeted by ruling party protestors
  • Banks accused of hindering efforts to tackle racial inequality

Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

New allegations by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters that South Africa’s biggest banks are frustrating efforts to address racial inequality signal an escalation of a battle for control of the nation’s financial system including the Treasury.

Protestors from the ruling African National Congress’s youth wing invaded a Barclays Africa Group Ltd. branch on Jan. 26. Then, on Monday, the ANC’s top leaders said the four biggest lenders can’t be allowed to continue dominating the industry. These banks have refused to do business with companies linked to the Gupta family, who are in business with Zuma’s son.

The same day, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan accused the Guptas of trying to undermine his ministry. He commented in court papers filed to rebut the family’s call for him to force banks to re-open accounts of businesses they control that the lenders closed last year because of allegedly suspicious transactions. The Guptas say there’s no evidence to justify the closure.

“Partly this is related to various factions within the ANC trying to pressure the banks politically in retaliation to the banks’ actions against the Guptas and their related entities last year,” said Rowan Williams, director of Nitrogen Fund Managers in Johannesburg with 1.4 billion rand ($104 million) under management.

Eroding Confidence

The criticisms of the banks and Gordhan risk eroding confidence in the financial-services industry, which is the largest in the 4.3 trillion rand economy, if real estate companies are included in the same category. Concern the banks may face increased political scrutiny are weighing on stocks. A gauge of six South African banks fell 0.8 percent by 9:50 a.m. in Johannesburg on Thursday, extending losses this year to 5.5 percent this year, the most among the local bourse’s major indexes.

The fight over the financial system is intensifying as Zuma, 74, prepares to step down as ANC leader in December.

“The truth that stands revealed as the real plot is the systematic and highly organized campaign by the Gupta family and its associates against the National Treasury, myself and other targets,” Gordhan said in the court papers.

That charge was denied by Oakbay Investments, a company controlled by the Guptas.

“The affidavit is a case of reverse victim syndrome. The applicant proactively came after us and smeared our name,” the company said by e-mail. “We look forward to clearing our name in Court.”

Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas, who he’s described as his friends, has sparked a series of controversies over how much clout they wield in the government. The nation’s graft ombudsman implied in a report last year that Zuma allowed the Gupta family to influence cabinet appointments and the awarding of state contracts. Zuma and the Guptas deny any wrongdoing.

Collusion Charge

The Guptas have alleged that the lenders, including Standard Bank, Barclays Africa, FirstRand Ltd. and Nedbank Group Ltd., colluded when they decided to close their accounts. The banks deny the accusation.

The racial makeup of the banks’ leaders has made the industry a target for politicians. Of the five biggest lenders, which together control about 90 percent of the local banking market, only Standard Bank has a black co-chief executive officer, and he has a white counterpart, while the rest are all headed by whites.

The ANC Youth League, in a statement on Jan. 18, accused the central bank of protecting lenders that they say use credit-risk assessments to prejudice young blacks by saddling them with high interest rates.

Uncertainty over the financial system heightened in December 2015 when Zuma unexpectedly fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister and replaced him with a little known lawmaker. That sent bank stocks into a tail spin when they lost about 155 billion rand in value over two days, the most on record, and weakened the rand. Four days later, under pressure from ANC and business leaders, including bank CEOs, Zuma named Gordhan to the post.

Nuclear Expansion

Since then Zuma and Gordhan have feuded over the management of state-owned companies and the affordability of a proposed nuclear power expansion.

Zuma criticized the treasury for failing to make funds available for the ANC’s economic transformation agenda at a three-day party meeting last week, BusinessDay newspaper reported Thursday, citing unidentified officials who attended the gathering. ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa called the report untrue.

Gordhan has spearheaded South Africa’s efforts to keep its investment-grade rating and is seen by international investors as a steady hand to guide the economy. The Treasury’s pledge to keep spending under control and limit debt was cited as crucial for S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings to avoid a cut to junk.

Drawing the banks into the political arena could be risky for the country, according to Patrice Rassou, head of equities at Sanlam Investment Management in Cape Town.

“Bank bashing has become a popular sport and yet a sound financial system is key to ensure the economy remains on a firm footing,” he said.

— With assistance by Paul Vecchiatto, and Arabile Gumede

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