VBS should be min­is­ter’s first port of call

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Tito Mboweni is go­ing to be such fun to have as fi­nance min­is­ter. When he was labour min­is­ter he used to have peo­ple check­ing up on trans­for­ma­tion in news­rooms.

When he was Re­serve Bank gov­er­nor he re­fused to have his pic­ture taken at press con­fer­ences in case some­one caught a bead of sweat on his brow. There’s a pic­ture of Mboweni us­ing a cloth to wipe his fore­head after a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult meet­ing of the mone­tary pol­icy com­mit­tee. It be­came the iconic “econ­omy in trou­ble” im­age for a while. It will soon re-emerge.

Hav­ing said that, he’s got balls. Soon after he be­came Re­serve Bank gov­er­nor in 1999 the en­tire team of peo­ple at the Bank who ran the na­tional pay­ments sys­tem, as he tells it, lit­er­ally walked out, hop­ing per­haps to squeeze this iso­lated new black gov­er­nor into giv­ing them a pri­vate con­tract to con­tinue run­ning the sys­tem, with­out which nor­mal fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions would have ground to a halt.

He found enough peo­ple at the Bank to mud­dle through. It is prob­a­bly why he once fa­mously said: “I have sought to re­cruit many com­pe­tent black peo­ple, and no sooner have we trained them than they leave. I get so up­set! I am stop­ping this re­cruit­ment of black peo­ple. I am okay with my Afrikan­ers. They stay and do the work.”

Typ­i­cal Mboweni, though now he is fi­nance min­is­ter some peo­ple have sug­gested he might con­sider delet­ing his Twit­ter ac­count, which is full of odd­i­ties. I think he en­riches us and I’d miss the ac­count if he shut it down. But now he is at the Trea­sury, it seems out­ra­geous that he once tweeted an idea that the state should buy out the big four banks. This might be a slightly mad idea, but the state own­ing a big bank isn’t.

Post Of­fice CEO Mark Barnes sug­gested the same just a few days ago in the Sun­day Times. His point be­ing that it isn’t right that credit costs you more if you’re poor than if you’re well-off. Barnes is sort of Afrikaans. He and Mboweni would get on well.

The new fi­nance min­is­ter has also been prac­tis­ing lately as a sort of fa­ther fig­ure to younger politi­cians, in­clud­ing some in the EFF. On Septem­ber 9 he tweeted a pic­ture of him­self in a warm hold­ing of hands with Mbuyiseni Nd­lozi, the EFF spokesper­son.

So he will have Nd­lozi’s phone num­ber. Which is good be­cause yes­ter­day the Bank pub­lished its re­port on the loot­ing of money at VBS Mu­tual Bank in Mboweni’s (and Cyril Ramaphosa’s and Julius Malema’s) home prov­ince of Lim­popo, and it seems that a great deal of the loot — R16.1m to be pre­cise — went to the brother of the deputy leader of the EFF, Floyd Shivambu.

This is not sur­pris­ing and is prob­a­bly just the tip of the ice­berg. Left-wing par­ties all over the world steal money to fi­nance them­selves. The ANC loots state-owned com­pa­nies and oil re­serves. In Italy and Spain the so­cial­ists set up bo­gus con­sult­ing com­pa­nies that pro­duce bo­gus re­ports that big busi­nesses buy if they want a look in at govern­ment con­tracts.

And the R16.1m VBS gave young Brian Shivambu would barely pay for a rally against, pick your topic — cap­i­tal­ism. Yet the EFF has been jump­ing up and down in its red suits ever since the Bank shut VBS down. Now we know why. It was fund­ing them.

This af­fects Mboweni be­cause as fi­nance min­is­ter he has the in­stru­ments at his dis­posal, namely su­per­vi­sion of the Fi­nan­cial In­tel­li­gence Cen­tre, to mon­i­tor the il­licit fund­ing of revo­lu­tion­ary and not so revo­lu­tion­ary po­lit­i­cal par­ties that may be break­ing the law to stay in busi­ness.

It would do Mboweni no harm at all to make a firm and early com­ment or ges­ture of sup­port to Terry Mo­tau, the ad­vo­cate ap­pointed by the Bank to in­ves­ti­gate VBS. “My re­port will re­veal that the per­pe­tra­tors of the heist at VBS made away with al­most R2bn,” Mo­tau said, ac­cord­ing to a re­port. More than 50 “per­sons of in­ter­est” were paid R1.89bn be­tween 2015 and 2018 and he calls for them to be crim­i­nally charged, the money re­cov­ered and VBS closed.

“It is cor­rupt and rot­ten to the core,” says Mo­tau. “In­deed, there is hardly a per­son in its em­ploy in any po­si­tion of author­ity who is not, in some way or other, com­plicit.”

This would be a good time for a new fi­nance min­is­ter to make known his distaste for cor­rup­tion and loot­ing. He should at least in­struct his of­fi­cials to make them­selves avail­able to the Hawks for ad­vice in con­struct­ing crim­i­nal charges for what is ob­vi­ously theft on a grand scale.

The mar­kets like Mboweni. He’s con­ser­va­tive and cau­tious. And, yes, prickly. But it’s a long time since he held pub­lic of­fice and SA is a fun­da­men­tally weak­ened econ­omy after Ja­cob Zuma. Also, Mboweni never de­clared him­self ahead of the ANC con­fer­ence that elected Ramaphosa, but a lot of peo­ple firmly be­lieved he was for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The coun­try would like to see Mboweni show a hand early. The VBS rob­bery is as de­cent a place to start as any.

● Bruce is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Busi­ness Day and the Fi­nan­cial Mail.


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