Durban - First National Bank faces a consumer backlash after critics lambasted it for kowtowing to the ANC over its controversial “You Can Help” ad campaign, which has drawn the ire of the ruling party.
But, while the bank risks losing customers because it bowed to government pressure over the campaign, a top economist says FNB stood to lose billions of rands in profits if the state took away lucrative business from the bank after making veiled threats to do so.
On Saturday FNB tried to manage the public relations disaster by insisting it had done the right thing.
FNB boss Michael Jordaan refused to answer questions, apart from saying: “I have no intention of resigning. I love being chief executive of the most innovative bank in the world.”
He referred other questions to FNB’s chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels, who would not comment on claims that the bank had succumbed to state pressure, saying: “We will not respond to speculation. While the campaign may be viewed as controversial by some, it will continue. We believe in its intent and remain committed to inspiring all South Africans to work together to help build a better South Africa.”
The FNB campaign features videos of children in school uniform reading their hopes for the country. Opposition parties and activist groups said the ANC’s criticism of the campaign showed its intolerance.
The ANC said its leadership and members were “strongly raising a question why the organisation should bank with a bank that has adopted an oppositional stance”.
Dawie Roodt, chief economist at Efficient Group, said it was “absolutely plausible” that FNB’s decision to apologise was a largely commercial one.
FNB and the ANC said First Rand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana had apologised to the government. The statement followed a meeting between Nxasana and the ANC leadership which included secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.
Roodt said the government held R20-R60 billion in its tax and loan account with South Africa’s major banks, including FNB.
“That is a big amount of money. If you lose money on that account, you’ll have to get it from somewhere else, and that is not going to be easy. So they would rather apologise than risk losing it. The reality is that the government is very strong. They have a lot of muscle. Governments all over the world are very strong because of the sort of money they move around. It appears our government is not shy to use that power,” Roodt said.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the videos in FNB’s campaign “fed into the opposition narrative that seeks to project the ANC and its government in a negative manner”.
The bank came under fire from the DA, which said many South Africans were considering closing accounts.
SA Institute of Race Relations deputy chief executive Frans Cronje said he was “shocked” by the bank’s apology. “It’s a great setback for efforts to create a better-governed South Africa.” In a series of tweets on Saturday, Cronje said to Jordaan: “Had you (Jordaan & FNB) stood your ground you’d have drawn a powerful line in the sand for SA, secured a remarkable PR coup, and done the right thing.”
Freedom of Expression Institute executive director Phenyo Butale called the ANC hypocritical and intolerant. “When the ANC was in opposition, it called on business to speak out on issues of national importance. Even in government, the ANC recently called on business leadership to be more engaged with government and policy issues. “In its criticism of the FNB’s advert, the ANC and its alliance partners are now showing intolerance of views which might be uncomfortable and critical.” He added that the bank had contributed positively to the national debate.
“FNB was only giving voice to a view from some young South Africans and this appears to be a useful contribution. We do not hear enough of the voices and opinions of young people and it is useful and valuable to bring such views to the fore.”
Butale said the discord in the ANC and its alliance partners was threatening.
“The ruling alliance is free to disagree with and criticise FNB, but it has done so in a way that is threatening and likely to have a chilling effect on debate and discussion. The Youth League has called this treachery. The SACP has called it agitation. The Young Communists have called it a veiled attack on the country. This is the language of intolerance, reminiscent of a previous age of censorship…
“The ANC has a strong majority and its authority in government is not threatened by such adverts. We would call on them to be more tolerant, open to criticism and to uphold the spirit of the constitution – which is to promote debate, discussion and free expression,” he said.
Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with criticism of FNB on Saturday. One Facebook user posted: “If I was an FNB client I would seriously reconsider it.”
Durban resident and DA councillor Dean Macpherson, describing himself as a “Soon to be former FNB customer”, wrote an open letter to Jordaan on Saturday. An FNB customer for 25 years, he said he was “inspired” by the campaign and believed the bank would be principled and stand up to ANC paranoia.
“But you buckled to threats and accusations from the ANC.
“When your advert became a threat to your bank’s prosperity, you chose to sacrifice the hopes of the children in your advert for prosperity.”
Political analyst and academic Steven Friedman said FNB was “not cowering at all”, although he described the bank’s decision to go ahead with a political campaign as “a little foolish” because of its potential to alienate customers.
DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane described FNB’s decision to apologise to the ANC as “lamentable”.
“In doing so, it has shown it is acceptable to be bullied by the governing party.”
He said it came as little surprise that many South Africans were considering closing their FNB accounts.
FNB corporate communications manager Christine Burrows said Nxasana had refuted the suggestion that FNB’s intention was to attack the ANC and the government, and “reiterated the positive objectives of the campaign”. “We apologised for the posting of the research interview clippings online, however we are pleased that the ANC has expressed its support for the overall FNB ‘You Can Help’ campaign,” said Burrows.
Jordaan also took to cyberspace, stating on Twitter that: “I am not resigning as CEO of the most innovative bank in the world.”