BLOODY NOSE FOR A BULLY
Disturbingly, the National Credit Regulator seems to have the same degree of respect for a free press you’d expect to find in Russia
On a cloudy winter’s morning on August 14 2014, three unidentified men pitched up at the house of debt counsellor Deborah Solomon in Brackenfell, Cape Town. They were aggressive, shouting to be let in, repeatedly rattling and kicking her gate.
The only people at the house were Solomon’s elderly parents, who were badly rattled.
“It was enormously traumatic for my parents. I was in a meeting at the time, but my neighbour called to ask what was happening at my house. For more than five hours, those men refused to identify themselves,” she says today.
Then they went to Solomon’s office and tried to muscle their way in. Eventually, Solomon arrived and figured out that the men were “investigators” with the National Credit Regulator (NCR). They said her registration as a debt counsellor with the regulator entitled them to search her premises. They stayed at her office, demanding files, until 7 pm.
It’s a disturbing outline of one of the most blatant tales of abuse of state power in recent times — one that underscores a disturbing intolerance for freedom of speech from within government institutions.
The back story is this: three days earlier, Solomon was quoted in an article criticising the NCR for being asleep at the wheel while African Bank was merrily ripping off customers. She said the regulator had become “an accessory to the devastation that has occurred for millions of consumers” by failing to do its job of properly enforcing the National Credit Act.
NCR CEO Nomsa Motshegare was fuming. She fired off a letter to Solomon demanding that she retract her statement. Solomon, feisty and blunt, refused. So the next day, August 12, Motshegare appointed the three inspectors who, 48 hours later, arrived at Solomon’s house and began kicking the gate.
Two weeks after the “raid”, the regulator applied to the national consumer tribunal to cancel Solomon’s registration. Its argument? She’d “brought the NCR into disrepute” by publicly criticising it.
Finally, last week, the tribunal rubbished Motshegare’s flimsy argument, ruling in Solomon’s favour. It said Solomon’s views were “no more than robust criticism” and it would “be contrary to the principles of a constitutional democracy to . . . stifle those who hold public bodies accountable”.
The tribunal was also “concerned with the reasons” for the investigation, saying the NCR’S actions could be “perceived as intimidating and meant to silence a critic”. In other words: a swaggering bully.
Motshegare wouldn’t answer questions from the Financial Mail, referring queries to NCR company secretary Lesiba Mashapa. Mashapa says his organisation will appeal the tribunal’s ruling, as it “opens the door for registrants to engage in conduct that undermines the authority of the NCR with impunity”.
He says: “We’re not trying to gag critics. But freedom of speech has limits and must be exercised in such a way that [it] doesn’t undermine the integrity and authority of government departments.”
It’s a wafer-thin argument — one you could imagine being trotted out by such free speech advocates as
Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump. After all, a cornerstone of free speech is that you’re entitled to exhibit what Salman Rushdie dubs a “fearless disrespect”.
But then the constitution probably isn’t a big feature on the NCR’S desks. Speaking of the raid on Solomon’s house, Mashapa says: “If [we] conduct an investigation, and the subject doesn’t co-operate, we have powers under the act, including search and seizure.”
Parliament, which has oversight of the regulator, should be deeply worried about this creeping authoritarianism in an institution designed to protect the disempowered. Solomon says parliament should ask if this is a sage use of taxpayer money.
“I’m not sorry about what I said,” she told the Financial Mail. “But I do worry that this sort of intimidation means debt counsellors are too scared to speak out about things that aren’t right. Especially when there’s already lots of pressure on them to get customers to agree to things they shouldn’t.”
Mashapa, however, argues that the regulator has no option but to use its rules to keep debt counsellors in line. “We have a duty to ensure they respect government institutions. If someone says something very negative about us, what else can we do?”
Well, for starters, the NCR can start by not abusing its powers to protect the pinprick-sensitive egos of its fragile bosses. If the NCR were doing its job properly, it would have no need to bludgeon critics.
Regulator says the National Credit Act allows for search and seizure — which could violate the constitution