OPINION | Mboweni must show his hand in VBS crisis

Finance minister Tito Mboweni
Finance minister Tito Mboweni
Image: File

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 that 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 on Wednesday 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 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 (FIC), 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, for the money to be recovered and for VBS to be 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 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.

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