While the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) has remained tight-lipped amid serious allegations that three of the country’s major banks, including Standard Bank, allegedly helped a gold smuggling gang launder millions of dollars in exchange for bribes in Zimbabwe, a Standard Bank employee has been suspended following the exposé.
International news network Al Jazeera earlier this year exposed how a Standard Bank employee was allegedly central in helping a gold smuggling gang launder “dirty cash” in exchange for regular bribes.
The probe, Gold Mafia by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit), sought to expose the intricate operations of various criminal organisations involved in the illicit gold trade from Zimbabwe, and illustrated how they exploited the trade to launder substantial sums of money.
The officers at the three banks were alleged to be on the payroll of a money launderer working for a cigarette magnate and smuggler, and would “enable dubious money transfers and remove evidence from the computer systems, all while getting monthly payments”, according to Al Jazeera.
Asked what action has been taken against Standard Bank amid the serious allegations, the Reserve Bank spokesperson Thoraya Pandy would only say: “The SARB does not comment on our supervisory relationships with the entities that we regulate.”
This despite Standard Bank itself confirming the suspension of an official following the Al Jazeera probe.
“Standard Bank has a zero-tolerance stance relating to criminality of any kind and will report and assist in any lawful investigation.
“These allegations are viewed in a serious light and Standard Bank confirms that due process is being followed internally with regards to the matter. A staff member has been suspended while the allegations are being investigated.
“Standard Bank cannot provide further information due to the ongoing complex investigation comprising multiple authorities.”
The Financial Intelligence Centre and the National Treasury indicated that they would respond in due course.
Unlike Standard Bank, the Sekunjalo Group, whose accounts the bank intends to close, has not been implicated in any malfeasance.
The bank initially claimed that banking the Sekunjalo Group, and its related companies, including Independent Media, was a reputational risk.
It now cited concerns over the Financial Intelligence Act, after it was hauled before the Equality Court in the Western Cape, where Sekunjalo is seeking an interim interdict against the bank in a bid to save the livelihoods of its employees.
If allowed to close the accounts, Standard Bank could deliver a devastating blow to more than 30 companies and the livelihoods of employees in the Sekunjalo Group.
The court is expected to make its decision on Friday, the same day Standard Bank had intended to shut the accounts.
Standard Bank’s intention to shut these accounts has been met with outrage by political parties and trade unions.
The National Freedom Party (NFP) became the latest political party to throw its weight behind the Sekunjalo Group.
“This alarming move, which threatens media freedom and the livelihoods of countless South Africans, has raised serious concerns about political interference in the diversity of opinion within the press.
“Standard Bank’s decision jeopardises not only the principles of media freedom and freedom of speech, but also the economic stability of these businesses and their employees. It is evident that there is a bigger agenda at play here. There is a concerted effort to shut down or cripple media houses that ideologically don’t align to the ‘dominant narrative’,” said Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, the NFP leader in Parliament.
He said if Standard Bank refused to withdraw this ridiculous decision, his party would be left with no choice but to call on South Africans to close their Standard Bank accounts and shift to banks that were committed to press freedom and democracy.
The Executive Assembly of INJEJE yabeNGUNI Council described the decision as an apartheid tactic to silence Independent Media, which has been critical of the current administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“Standard Bank has shifted from being a service provider to being a political proxy in the financial services sector that is abusing its positioning to destroy black-owned companies and the lives of thousands of African employees in the process.
“Banks in South Africa have become politically active and factional, which highlights the necessity for a state owned bank,” the council said.