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Corruption Watch considers VBS heist report

The urgent commitment of the government towards combatting such corruption is on the line, points out David Lewis.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The forensic report on VBS Mutual Bank was released to the public yesterday. Its findings are truly explosive and shocking. Working with Werksmans Attorneys’ lead investigator, Advocate Terry Motau found that some R2 billion had been embezzled from the bank – and, worse still, by key shareholders of the bank and senior officials there. The bank was placed under curatorship in March this year. Advocate Motau says over 53 people are implicated and has called for the moneys to be recovered and for people to do jail time.

Joining me to take this story further I am joined by David Lewis, the executive director of Corruption Watch. Thanks very much for joining us, David. This is a shocking bank heist, and I think the only positive thing about it is that it was done without any violence. But the quantum and the boldness is really quite something.

DAVID LEWIS: Yes. I’ve been used to saying over the past many years that a particular incident is a game-changer, but if this is not a game-changer, nothing is. But it’s going to be a huge test of the commitment and competence of the law enforcement authorities, as well as of the political parties implicated in this scandal. It’s absolutely appalling.

NOMPU SIZIBA: What really disturbed me in reading some pages – just a few – of the 140-page report was the fact that many of the people that enabled this grand theft were professionals; that is, accountants, lawyers, people in managerial positions. I’m not suggesting that if you are a professional person you are somehow more moral, but many of these roles would have demanded that people exercise fiduciary duty, and clearly they chose their stomachs over their consciences. What are your thoughts about this?

DAVID LEWIS: You don’t expect professionals to be moral – you do expect them to understand that their ability to continue practicing their profession relies upon them obeying the ethical rules of the profession. But obviously, if they don’t appear to be sanctioned by their professional body, they’ll do whatever they like, just as, if they don’t fear sanctions from the law-enforcement authorities, they’ll do what they like. Yes, you are right, let’s see what the employer associations and the auditor associations say about this as well.

This is a heist that encompasses everything that you don’t want to hear about corruption. It’s corruption on a grand scale, it’s stealing from the poorest communities in the country, it implicates key public agencies, and it implicates the leaders of important political parties, including the governing party. So you want to see “now the ball is in your court – let’s see where your commitment lies”. I tell you, the commitment of the new government to combatting corruption, which we’ve had no reason to question to date, will be on the line around this.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Absolutely. David the National Prosecuting Authority, the NPA, still doesn’t have leadership and we know historically it’s been really slow in dealing at least with high-profile cases that the public has been keen to see action on. How quickly does the NPA need to read this forensic report and get on with the business of trying to ensure that people are brought to book?

DAVID LEWIS: They need to do it yesterday, quite honestly. The work has been done for it. I expect that there’s further work to be done in compiling a criminal docket, but you have here an eminent senior counsel who has done a thorough piece of work, by all appearances – and so there you are. What more do you need? It’s not like I’ve walked into a police station and said: “I think that something is wrong at VBS. Here it is.” So what’s the problem? When I read advocate Motau’s report, you can literally place it in a brown envelope and submit it as a docket.

But, you know, the theft was so brazen, so gross. The conspicuous consumption that they indulged in as a result of it was so extraordinary that I really can’t see it. But I’m waiting to see what the ANC and the EFF do about allegations implicating their senior people in this because that is going to be a major test. That doesn’t have to wait for the NPA and it doesn’t have to wait for findings of guilt. They could move immediately and they really need to do so.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Well, Fikile Mbalula seemed to be quite mindful of that, because he said that this is going be a real test for the ANC. So he was making all the right noises at the ANC briefing. And also the EFF came out with a WhatsApp message saying that basically, they feel that whoever is implicated should face the law, etc. But they haven’t spoken directly to the allegation that Mr Shivambu’s brother may have been involved.

It’s very interesting and I suppose everybody is going to be watching very closely.

DAVID LEWIS: Yes, indeed. Fikile Mbalula is accustomed to making a lot of noise, and no action generally follows from the noise that he makes. It’s just more noise. So let’s hope in this instance he is representing something serious. In the case of the EFF, if they hadn’t been implicated, I can imagine how they would have been tearing into the ANC on this. And rightly so.

So we want to see those enunciated high-and-mighty words about combatting corruption – and they should at least respond to the allegations. I heard Brian Shivambu’s statement today, which denies complicity in this. Well, if that’s true, let them say that. But if you read reports, they are on tough ground to deny that the Shivambu family was somehow not a beneficiary of this heist.

NOMPU SIZIBA: We are going to have to watch that very closely.

Just going back to what we were discussing about the importance of the prosecuting authorities getting on top of this – if indeed they don’t get on top of it quickly, is there a danger that a lot of the R2 billion that was stolen won’t be recovered?

DAVID LEWIS: I’m sure it’s already at that. Most of this involves helicopters and other such toys of billionaires. I thought that the Asset Forfeiture Unit had already moved on this, but I speak under correction. But yes, I’m pretty sure that will be acting quickly. They are part of the NPA. But in this case we need to see not simply a seizure of assets, we need to see people going to jail.

NOMPU SIZIBA: David, you head up the Corruption Watch organisation. South Africa has had its fair share of recent scandals in both the public sector, especially with this whole notion of state capture and in the private sector. Do you think the cases we know about barely scratch the surface of the corruption culture that’s become the norm in our society, or are you hopeful that these are merely exceptional situations?

DAVID LEWIS: They are not exceptional situations. We, unlike many other organisations, are very involved in what is misleadingly called petty corruption. We go to people who need public housing, use public health, and for them, corruption is an experience of everyday life. The positive slant on this is that our experience tells us that South Africans have not accepted that this is a way of life, as people in other countries have done. They are outraged by it. So I think that’s the best hope.

I regret that these are not unusual instances. This VBS incident really leaps out at you. That’s why I think, if any good comes of it, it might finally change the game. It might change the game for a lot of ordinary people as well because they are the direct victims. They are generally victims of all corruption, but in this instance, it’s taking it straight out of their bank accounts.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Exactly. Then lastly, as Corruption Watch, are you guys going to be engaging with this case at all?

DAVID LEWIS: I don’t know. We are certainly going to be following it very closely and we are certainly going to be following Advocate Motau’s recommendations very closely, including his recommendations surrounding the people who need to be charged. Let’s see what they do. I’m enough of an optimist to believe that in this instance things are going to move quite quickly, but we’ll watch and we’ll see what happens.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Indeed. Thank you very much for your time, David.

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Even EFF lawyer Dali Mphofu who is an advocate, tried to duck the issue of the Savambu brother and Floyd’s alleged theft of R16m.
Mphofu implied the journalist who called him had the problem, not the Savambus.

As to what might happen to the suspects, it was extensively reported today how broke the Hawks are with no money, and equally serious, how under staffed, with those that there are working for the Hawks, lacking proper skills and experience in finance. So they can’t build cases strong and accurately enough to prosecute successfully.

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