Durban — The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal has slammed Standard Bank's (SBSA) continued attempts to shut down the bank accounts of Independent Media and 30 other subsidiaries of its parent company, Sekunjalo Holdings.
Responding to detailed questions sent by the Daily News on Thursday, the party's provincial spokesperson, Mafika Mndebele, said Africa’s oldest liberation movement was opposed to any form of censorship or interference with the editorial independence of media houses.
"We view Standard Bank’s decision to close down the bank accounts of your parent company Independent Media very seriously. In particular, we remain concerned that Standard Bank intends to close down bank accounts during the month of August. A period dedicated to observing Women’s Month and to promoting women’s empowerment," he said.
The bank has come under fire, amid a groundswell of public concern from journalists, civil society, political parties, media workers and unions over what has been called the "weaponisation" of financial institutions.
The bank has yet to comment on the potential impact on media freedom and the job security of 1 600 media workers, after announcing its intention to close the bank accounts of Independent media and 30 other companies in Sekunjalo Group.
SBSA's legal team issued letters to Sekunjalo on July 21, giving its companies a 30-day notice period before the closure of its accounts.
The move comes after the Competition Appeals Court ruled last week that the Competition Tribunal had in September 2022 erred in ordering SBSA, Mercantile Bank and Access Bank to either reopen or not close Sekunjalo’s accounts.
Repeated attempts by Independent Media to engage with SBSA on the matter have failed; this as employees at major media outlets like Cape Argus, Cape Times and IOL, whose salaries are paid via Independent Media’s Standard Bank accounts, hold their breath.
According to Mndebele, of the thousands of journalists who will be affected by the shutdown of bank accounts, some are women who are breadwinners.
"What will happen to them and their families? Sadly, the few women who are in the newsrooms are role models for many women across all political lines and communities. Female journalists have used the media, especially during this month, to educate women about their rights. We know that Independent Media has over the years used their titles to put on a pedestal all women who are in different sectors of our economy. This has helped women socially, politically and economically," he said.
He added that through newspapers such as Isolezwe, there were stories and initiatives that focused on women in the townships and rural areas.
"Standard Bank is indirectly saying they do not care about these members of society. We are making this statement because women empowerment is essential for the development of the country. Therefore, within the context of women’s month, the decision to shut down Independent Media bank accounts should be viewed as a deliberate effort to deny women information that will ultimately empower them with the capacity to change the destiny of our country," said Mndebele.
“As the ANC we regard the empowerment of women as a never-ending assignment. And the media is critical in champion this assignment. For the record, we remain radically opposed to Standard Bank's decision.”
He also made it clear that the ANC in KZN remained determined to ensure the transformation of the financial sector as guided by the party's Nasrec resolutions.
"Such a posture by Standard Bank is a reminder about the importance of the implementation of our resolution. Delegates agreed that this transformation should include gender and race of the ownership of financial institutions, and must also include the transformative and diverse allocation of capital from banks along race, gender and geo-spatial lines," he said.
Earlier this week, the Daily News’s sister paper, Cape Argus, sent SBSA a query asking:
- Has SBSA considered the impact of the closure of the accounts on the estimated 1 600 media workers employed by Sekunjalo-owned companies, and the livelihoods of their dependants?
- Has SBSA considered the impact on media freedom, by putting South Africa's largest newspaper company at risk?
- SBSA has cited reputational risk as the basis for its decision to close the companies' accounts. The reputational risk issue emanated from the Mpati Commission of Inquiry's into the Public Investment Corporation. Sekunjalo (its subsidiary AYO) was subsequently vindicated following a Western Cape High Court settlement between AYO and the PIC. Is the reputational risk argument thus still valid? If not, what is the decision to close the accounts based on?
In response, SBSA evaded the matter and instead rehashed a previous statement it had issued last week, reading: “Standard Bank is pleased with the judgment which confirms Standard Bank’s position, since inception, that we have not been involved in any anti-competitive behaviour as alleged.”
The statement added: “Following the favourable judgment, Standard Bank is engaging with the Sekunjalo Group on the next steps.” However, no further communication from SBSA has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, public outrage has been building, with EFF leader Julius Malema saying on Wednesday: "Banks are being weaponised. We are all suffering. We are being bullied by banks in South Africa. It is just a matter of time before we act against this injustice. One of these days, we will mobilise and find a way to deal with this."
The Public Service and Commercial Union (PSCU) condemned Standard Bank’s insistence in closing the bank accounts, and called the collateral damage this will have on hundreds of employees and their dependants “evil”.
“This ill-considered approach shows how diabolical Standard Bank is towards workers and their families, some of whom happen to be their clients, said PSCU Secretary General, Tahir Maepa.
“The impunity by Standard Bank has created a monster where banks are clearly now acting above the law, practising discrimination in broad daylight against the working class.”
Last month, Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, sounded an ominous warning: “In South Africa, we are forced to kneel before five banks. This represents some of the most concentrated banking systems in the world. The greater concentration of banking to the big five has clearly undermined accountability, hindered development, stifled competition, and passed on the cost burden to citizens.”
Dlamini Zuma called for an alternative public banking and finance system beyond the dominant one. She said BRICS' New Development Bank was a step in the right direction.
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