Ian Sinton from Standard Bank gave evidence on the commission of inquiry into state capture. Picture: Dimpho Maja/ African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - In trying to force Standard Bank to reverse its decision to close Gupta-linked business accounts, former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane reminded the bank executives that the South African government was in charge of issuing banking licenses and could change banking laws anytime.

Standard Bank's chief compliance officer, Ian Sinton, told the state capture inquiry on Monday that Oakbay had embarked on a media campaign to persuade the bank to reopen its accounts in 2016. The CEOs of South Africa's four major banks were publicly mentioned by name and told their decisions were detrimental to the livelihood of thousands of employees at Gupta-owned companies. 

''That was the public campaign, privately we received invitations to our CEO [Sim Tshabalala] to a meet with Oakbay, another for one at Luthuli House with the ANC to discuss the bank accounts closures. We also received an invitation from the inter-ministerial committee from Cabinet asking us to come and account on our decision.''   

The Cabinet appointed an inter-ministerial committee to probe the closing of Gupta-owned Oakbay's accounts. The IMC comprised of Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, Zwane and Zuma loyalist Mzwanele ''Jimmy'' Manyi. 

Sinton said at the meeting, Manyi introduced himself as Zwane's advisor.

''Zwane said the former president Zuma appointed the committee and that was the chairperson. We made it clear that we were ready to discuss procedures that led to closing accounts, and not the relationship with clients,'' he said.

Sinton said Standard Bank was at risk at the time, and gave an example of its Tanzanian operations that involved a ''politically exposed partner''. The UK and US authorities opened corruption cases against Standard Bank for failure to prevent suspicious activities, resulting in the bank paying a fine.  The bank would not allow itself to be caught in a money laundering scandal again, he said.

''They [Zwane, Manyi and Oliphant] turned to Oakbay and its employees, and told us to reconsider and think about their livelihoods. We told them we followed the law, and that it was because the conduct of the [Oakbay] company owners and not us. They said in such consternation with the law, then we should favour the employees and their dependents over the law - meaning risk non-compliance...we rejected that.''

''Minister Zwane then said as a member of the ruling party, he had the ability to get the laws changed, and that [he was] inclined to propose a clause in the law deeming it illegal for banks to close bank accounts. Towards the end of the meeting, Zwane reminded [us] that we operated under license from government, and that we should be more responsive to their concerns.''

As the meeting closed, Zwane asked the bank representatives what changes they would like to see happen at Oakbay in order for the accounts to be reopened, despite the banks' reiterations not to discuss its relationship with Oakbay.

The Luthuli House meeting was attended by the then-ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, his then deputy Jessie Duarte and ANC head of economic policy Enoch Godonwana. 

''We were asked to comment on perceptions that we were part of white monopoly capital oppressing black businesses and that we were taking instructions from Stellenbosch to close accounts...we rejected those claims. I must say it was the first time I saw my boss Sim Tshabalala get really angry in that meeting,'' Sinton said.

On the impact the closing of bank accounts would have on employees, Sinton said Tshabala told the three leaders of the governing party that the bank was complying with the law, that Standard Banks' 40 000 employees were equally important, and that the bank would not be exposed to international sanctions.

Former Oakbay executive Nazeem Howa, Gupta lieutenant Ashu Chawla, Terry Renson and former Oakbay CEO Ronica Ragavan were the Gupta representatives at the third meeting with Standard Bank executives. The Oakbay representatives cited the fact that the Guptas had resigned from senior positions, that no one had been convicted, and that at least 7 000 employees needed to be paid through the banks as reasons for the bank to reconsider its position.

Chawla and Howa are accused of corruption in the Estina dairy project along with five others. The case is before the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court.

Evidence leader Phillip Mokoena said the commission has informed Zwane and Oliphant that they had been implicated, and said they were consulting their own lawyers before they could respond. 

Proceedings will resume Tuesday and will hear evidence from Absa bank.

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African News Agency (ANA)