Mike Cahill says FNB bank bullied him after he had a run-in with a surly staff member in a branch. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA) Photo: File

Pretoria - When banks closed the Guptas’ bank accounts three years ago, it signalled the end of their crooked empire in South Africa.
No bank wanted to be associated with their dirty money, so they publicly distanced themselves and sent the message to others with tainted records.

Last month, Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago spoke about the saga - and the political pressure that was exerted on the central bank after the Guptas’ bank accounts were closed.

Kganyago told the Stavros Niarchos Foundation that the central bank was pressured to force the banks to reconsider the closures because they had made it nearly impossible for the family to run its operations.

“We were using our independence to uphold a law against dirty money flows, and that made us enemies.”

The Reserve Bank governor also said they were accused of undermining black excellence and protecting the interests of white capitalists.

“You know the saying that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels’? Well, in South Africa, if you really need somewhere to hide, it’s not in patriotism but in race politics.”

What does it mean for the rest of us? Ordinary clients are just as likely to rub their banks up the wrong way and risk their accounts being closed.

Mike Cahill says his bank bullied him after he had a run-in with a surly staff member in a branch.

A month later, he was informed his bank account would be closed.

Cahill had visited the Watercrest branch in Waterfall, Durban, to initiate a new PIN and to get access online for a new business new card.

He says he was greeted by a surly employee who, after explaining what he needed to do, simply walked away without saying a word.

“A second, much happier employee asked me how she could help and duly completed half her task. The other half she was unable to finalise and asked the first employee I saw to assist. To my surprise, this employee asked how she could help and I then retold my request, the second time to her and the third repeat since I walked in.”

By this stage, Cahill was annoyed - “I did struggle to curb my unhappiness at repeating the story twice within five minutes at a very quiet branch with fewer than three customers to the same person.

"When she picked up on my unhappiness, she walked away from her workstation and didn’t solve my simple issue.”

Then, a month later, he received a “termination of contract” letter, and given one month to settle all debt, change debit orders and clear his account.

“When I queried this I was asked to meet the area managers and informed that there were racist allegations made against me, hence the termination.”

Cahill says that, without hearing his side of the alleged incident or hearing a recording of what transpired, FNB has terminated his contract, caused undue stress and forced him to bank elsewhere simply because an FNB employee made baseless allegations. When asked about the matter, FNB refused to be drawn on it, citing “client confidentiality”.

A spokesperson, Dumi Shiburi, said: “FNB continually evaluates its banking relationships with clients in light of various considerations, including the protection of the rights of our staff members and customers.

“FNB can confirm that reasonable notice is provided in writing to a client when the bank elects to exercise its contractual right to terminate a relationship. FNB has a zero-tolerance approach to any form of unfair discrimination and abusive behaviour.”

What does it mean for ordinary clients who might rub up their banks the wrong way and risk their accounts being closed based on an untested - and unproved - allegation? Can banks summarily close an account in this manner?

Apparently, they can. Banking Ombudsman Reana Steyn told me that, generally speaking and without going into the specifics of the matter, it was possible because banks can end their relationships with clients at any time - just as a customer can do so at any time.

“A bank may decide to close a customer’s account because of how that person has been operating it, or because of regulatory requirements, or because the bank feels the relationship has broken down,” she said.

“Banks are under no obligation to continue doing business with a customer but it is obviously good business practice that they should not close an account without good reason.

“However, the only legal requirement is that they cannot do so without giving reasonable notice.

“It is clear from the law and the Code of Banking Practice that the bank has a duty to notify you that it has decided to close your account.

“What constitutes ‘reasonable notice’ will depend on the type of account and the circumstances of each case. A business account may well require more notice to allow the customer to make alternative arrangements.”

Steyn said a bank does not have to explain why it is closing a customer’s account, although in most cases, banks follow good practice and give a reason.

“It only has to give sufficient notice - which is not a fixed period, but will depend on the circumstances of each case.”

Steyn said customers can always submit a formal complaint to the bank, which will then be dealt with by a separate division.

“And, if they have no joy, they can lodge a dispute with our office.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook