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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

Poor South African savers left ruined by bank collapse

The scandal surrounding the demise of VBS Mutual Bank has seen some lose all their money

Annah Muambadzi, a pensioner and treasurer of the 'stokvel', a collective of sixteen people that invested in VBS, at her home in Hamutsha Village in Levubu Limpopo, South Africa. Photo: AFP
Annah Muambadzi, a pensioner and treasurer of the 'stokvel', a collective of sixteen people that invested in VBS, at her home in Hamutsha Village in Levubu Limpopo, South Africa. Photo: AFP

Annah Muambadzi, 65, cannot forget the panic that gripped her savings club when VBS Mutual Bank, a regional financial institution catering to poor customers in South Africa, collapsed last year.

"As treasurer of my stokvel, I had to go to the bank almost every day to find out what is happening," the South African says.

Fear spread through poor rural communities when VBS, one of the country's smallest lenders, was put into administration in March last year after it was unable to repay money owed to municipalities, according to the country’s central bank. It later emerged that nearly 2 billion rand (Dh5.1 million) was embezzled by dozens of bank officials with connections to the ruling African National Congress.

The bank's collapse came as Ms Muambadzi's son was about to get married, and university fees were due for another child.

"The ladies started looking at me suspiciously thinking I had stolen the money," she says of her savings club, known as a stokvel, into which members contribute an agreed amount each month. "It broke down the trust."

Fear spread through poor rural communities across South Africa last year when VBS, a regional bank that catered to poorer customers, collapsed. Photo: AFP
Fear spread through poor rural communities across South Africa last year when VBS, a regional bank that catered to poorer customers, collapsed. Photo: AFP

The bank was left in ruins after 53 people stole $130m deposited by individuals such as Ms Muambadzi and her club.

One of those implicated was the brother of Floyd Shivambu, a prominent leader of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which has campaigned against corruption.

VBS was founded in 1982 at the height of apartheid in the Venda homeland, an area of modern-day Limpopo province reserved by white authorities for black communities.

The lender's collapse, after the High Court ordered it be liquidated, became one of the most serious corruption scandals to rock post-apartheid South Africa, largely because so many victims were poor, black and female.

South Africa's central bank was forced to step in and guaranteed $7,300 per retail depositor through a competing bank. More than 17,000 people flocked to open accounts according to the rescuer, Nedbank. But those with savings above the threshold face losing the difference.

Retired university lecturer and minority shareholder professor Elwani Khuba, 81, says she saved at the bank because it promised to guarantee her future.

"We used to get dividends, we were happy that VBS was working well," Ms Khuba says. Now, "I'm still waiting to get my money and the value of my shares".

Ms Khuba had hoped "to give this legacy to my children and also to my grandchildren.

"It was so heart-wrenching, we didn't know what to do," she says.

Local investigative journalists reported on executives purchasing luxury cars and chartering helicopters with the bank's money. The central bank in October published a 148-page report titled The Great Bank Heist that laid bare the greed of those who plundered the bank.

"These were criminals similar to bank robbers, the only difference was that they carried suitcases and they wore fancy Armani suits," says administrator Anoosh Rooplal.

Four months after the bank collapsed, officials said asset recoveries will depend "on the success of the liquidation process".

Cyril Ramaphosa, who became South Africa's president in February 2018 pledging to stamp out graft, vowed to "prosecute those responsible" for the missing funds, but no arrests have yet been made.

The ruling ANC fired 14 mayors accused of illegally investing surpluses in the bank. ANC deputy chairperson in Limpopo' Florence Radzilani, was among those fired for reportedly taking bribes for investing 300m rand of the Vhembe municipality purse into the bank.

In Hamutsha, a village in the northern Vhembe district, water and electricity supplies are scarce as funds were diverted to dubious investments in VBS.

"You must imagine, it's very hot. There's no water so people go to the river to get water," says Aubrey Mulaudzi, a local mechanic who also lost money in the bank.

"The money was there but the politicians are playing around with the lives of the people. Poor people who voted for them don't get services."

Aubrey Mulaudzi (right), a diesel mechanic who lost money when VBS collapsed, assists a trainee diesel mechanic at his workshop. Photo: AFP
Aubrey Mulaudzi (right), a diesel mechanic who lost money when VBS collapsed, assists a trainee diesel mechanic at his workshop. Photo: AFP

The collapse has also hit businesses hard. At Mr Mulaudzi's auto repair shop, a thick layer of dust covers the dozens of cars parked there.

For 25 years, the garage offered repairs to drivers navigating the potholed road through Thohoyandou, 460 kilometres north of Pretoria.

"My father, my mother used to bank there," says Mr Mulaudzi, 56, wiping oil from his hands with a cloth.

Mr Mulaudzi, who started saving with VBS in 1987, lost shares and cash worth $145,000, and is struggling to pay salaries and suppliers.

"It's slowed our performance," he says, adding that he had been forced to lay off half of his 26 workers.

Mr Mulaudzi says that if the money is not recovered, it would end up "killing small businesses like us".

"If we go down, [the unemployed] will be the burden of the government again."

So what happened at VBS?

The collapse of VBS is among a series of corruption scandals in South Africa in recent years. In October last year, a forensic report into VBS showed nearly 2bn rand was embezzled by dozens of bank officials with connections to the ruling ANC.

Also implicated were senior members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the far left opposition movement calling for the nationalisation of the country’s banks. VBS officials had bribed local municipal officials to bank South African’s money with them. The money did not stay in VBS for long, it was quickly spent on luxury cars, overseas holidays including, for one official implicated, a skiing trip to Alaska.

The bank was also in the spotlight when it gave former president Jacob Zuma a 7.8m rand loan to reimburse the state for upgrades to his personal home.

Global auditor KPMG also came under fire over the VBS banking scandal. A South African Reserve Bank investigation published in September said South Africa should seek damages from KPMG for the role it played in the corruption scandal.

Lawyers and forensic investigators were commissioned on behalf of the central bank to investigate VBS after it was placed under curatorship in March. KPMG, which audited the bank's financial results, said it had noted the investigation's publication.

"We will only be in a position to comment once we have studied the full contents of the report," the auditor said at the time.

Advocate Terry Motau, who led the VBS probe, recommended last year that criminal charges be brought against the more than 50 individuals and entities who orchestrated and benefited from the VBS theft.

Mr Motau said in October that the scale of the looting from VBS would not have been possible had KPMG not signed off on the bank's financial results.

Two KPMG partners who had dealings with VBS, Sipho Malaba and Dumi Tshuma, resigned after failing to disclose financial interests in VBS.

Updated: March 16, 2019 01:57 PM

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