Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi/ANA

After spending 15 years at the office of the Ombud for Financial Services Providers and assuming the position of FAIS Ombud in 2010, Nolunto Bam, has stepped down. In this message, she looks back at the initial challenges faced by the office and its growth to become an important player to be reckoned with in the financial services landscape.

In 2003, I commenced work as an Assistant Ombud at this remarkable institution known as the Office of the Ombud for Financial Services Providers (FAIS Ombud).

Fifteen years later, as I begin to bid farewell to this Office, I cannot help reflecting on the few challenges and many successes that were encountered along the stimulating journey.

When I joined the tribunal, it was then a little-known entity under the stewardship of the first FAIS Ombud, the late Charles Pillai, and with only five staff members.

As the Office of the FAIS Ombud gained muscle over the years by way of relevant human capital, it slowly cleared dead wood and focused on developing and refining its processes to ensure improved customer service, galvanised governance and a spike in complaints resolution.

Now a familiar name that resonates with many ordinary South Africans, the Office of the FAIS Ombud has earned its stripes as a beacon of hope for those who require access to justice to resolve their complaints against powerful financial houses.  

At the beginning of my journey with the FAIS Ombud, I had reasoned, rather fallaciously, that my previous exposure to the financial services industry and my impending qualification as a Certified Financial Planner would comfortably see me through the resolution of complaints. How mistaken I was.

My experience in the financial services industry gave me advantage, no doubt, and so too, was my understanding of financial planning law. However, the work of a financial regulator demanded a lot more than legal technical prowess. We had to run a business, a highly regulated one at that. Also, I could not have foreseen what was coming by way of complaints, the volumes thereof, and the sheer pain of dealing with abusive providers who looked past the human being, straight to the money.

In early 2004, we took a conscious decision to resolve complaints long before we were empowered by law in order to start introducing the Office, its mandate and the then Ombud, to the financial services industry.

Our first knock at each door would be that of an enquiry. We wanted to know whether businesses would accept us as mediators as we had no legal status to resolve complaints then. The FAIS Act and its subordinate legislation had not fully come into operation. Once inside, we would raise the legal issues presented in the complaint and leave it to the entity to decide how they would resolve the matter. That initial thinking saw us resolve our first complaint and a few more.

Originally coming from the Eastern Cape and having briefly settled in KwaZulu-Natal in pursuit of personal development, I was new to Gauteng which can be intimidating to villagers and those who come from small towns. Luckily, I had a guide in the warm person of the late Ombud.   

One and half decades later, as I clear my desk and get ready to move onto the next chapter of my life, I reflect upon what will count as one of my greatest shots at contributing towards the growth of Mother Africa, through this institution of hope known as the Office of the FAIS Ombud.

It feels surreal that I am no longer going to be part of the FAIS Ombudsies and exchange those late-night emails, even up to midnight, all in pursuit of the FAIS Ombud’s goals. I am leaving behind a team of highly qualified and competent people. A people centric team that prizes organisational success as if it were their own. A crowd that is cognisant that failure of the organisation means their own. I am jealous.

We recognised from the onset that we could never do things on our own. Over the years we have benefitted immensely from the help brought by several public entities, standard-setting bodies like the Financial Planning Institute, academics, retired judges, intermediaries - both active and retired -  and industry administration staff. This help has always been a breath of fresh air and it powers us to move forward with confidence. We run a business, after all.

The mandate of the FAIS Ombud is to resolve complaints. The legislature saw it fit to bring about this piece of legislation to protect consumers and foster the integrity of the financial services industry.

The power imbalance between the contracting parties in financial arrangement means it is not only the poor that need legislative protection; it is everyone. In dealing in financial products, consumers deal with prolix, dense and hard to read standard form contracts and all that is required is their signature.

There is little or no room to negotiate terms. One cannot negotiate what one does not understand anyway. They rely on the intermediary’s understanding of the product - which at times can be disappointingly inadequate - and trust that the financial product recommended to them will suit their needs. When they receive a letter of rejection, denying what they thought would be provided in terms of the contract, they require an accessible and independent forum to lodge their complaints.

Throughout the years, South African consumers have put their faith in the Office of the FAIS Ombud. It does not matter to them that they do not need to attend physically at the Office, but they come anyway. Young and old, rich, poor, literate and illiterate, they all come.

I will never forget the complaint from a 68-year old retiree who had travelled overseas with his wife, comfortable in the belief that his medical expenses would be covered while abroad. He developed deep vein thrombosis while airborne to his destination. To his shock, the insurer advised that he had to come back to South Africa to lodge the complaint, which he eventually did. Once in South Africa, he was informed that the policy did not cover anyone beyond the age of 65 and so his claim was rejected. We put forward a simple case: “was it fair to recommend the policy to the 68- year old given the outright exclusion?” The case was resolved and the consumer was satisfied.  

Consider the case of Mrs Helena Dennis and how she successfully challenged the bank, rightfully so, and provided insurance to protect the bank’s interests as the mortgage lender; insurance that accorded with her circumstances, not the one the bank was recommending. As much as Mrs Dennis was tenacious and undeterred by the lack of audience to deal with her case, she would not have resolved the matter on her own. She required the Office of the FAIS Ombud to set the record straight, and it did.

What about Mr Nelson Tshitema who believed he was dealing with a bank because the calls came from a branch where he banked. After agreeing to transfer his savings from the bank account to the investment recommended by two gentlemen at the bank, he discovered that the two were pursuing their own interests but using the bank’s resources. Despite Mr Tshitema’s efforts to resolve the matter with the bank in the face of the evidence he had to demonstrate that he had been misled by the bank’s employees, the bank would not assist him. The FAIS Ombud stepped in with a determination and resolved the matter.

Can we forget Mrs Kawula and the plethora of insurance policies she was sold and which she viewed as a transaction to purchase furniture? Notwithstanding contestation from several quarters that the Ombud had overstepped its boundaries in making this decision, the decision was never successfully challenged.

A lady from KwaZulu-Natal whose complaint was resolved after years of complaining to the provider to no avail sent R300 in an envelope to a case manager, thanking her. It was deposited back into her bank account on the same day. She wrote back and thanked us for acting as her lawyers. We wrote back in appreciation but gently informed her that we are an independent complaints resolution body.

A complainant whose complaint had been dismissed by the Office made the following comment: “We, like most people who are in their twilight years, entrusted our finances with x bank, a reputable institution. When these institutions take advantage and behave like they have done in our case, our only hope is watchdogs like the FAIS Ombud, whom we know is obliged by law to consider the facts and apply the law without fear or favour….”

The fact is that the FAIS Ombud has changed the way the game used to be played.

The work of the Office and its success is a reflection of the drive and commitment in our people. The results achieved over the years speak to that commitment and dedication. The staff of the Office of the FAIS Ombud have no particular time by which they must leave the office. Professional staff, on their own volition, push until late at night. It has become routine for senior staff to connect to their laptops after office hours in pursuit of the FAIS Ombud’s organisational goals.

As a result of the extent of personal involvement, commitment and ownership of what we do, it is important for us to choose wisely during staff selection.

We have not always got it right. Like in any recruitment exercise, the potential to select misfits is always present. What reduces the pain, however, is the ownership and expeditious remedying of the problem by the responsible senior personnel who are directly connected to the matter at hand.

The work of the FAIS Ombud requires more than technical prowess and confidence in one’s abilities. There is what is often referred to as responding to a calling. Our people must demonstrate the values of public service, embracing the FAIS Ombud’s brand, patience, understanding, and the will to walk the extra mile.

We are all not perfect and we have never sought to find perfection in any one of our employees. We are human beings first and bring our own experiences to work but we try as much as we can to bring our best selves to the Office every day.

Without the conscientious staff of the FAIS Ombud there would be no FAIS Ombud. I am indebted to the senior managers and fellow executives at the FAIS Ombud. I am leaving behind an office that is supported by competent stewards with an impeccable work ethic.

I will always be indebted to several leaders of the FAIS Ombud, in particular the risk team, and the senior managers. These people picked me up and fuelled my tank when it ran dry and encouraged me to go forward. They nurtured me spiritually and powered me to give my best while observing the rules of common decency and giving me my space. They can attest to my hunger and passion for justice for the common man.

I am also indebted to my principals, the Board, who over the years have guided me in steering the Office whilst keeping a healthy distance between the operation and their oversight role. Several people within and outside the Office held my hand and cautioned me to slow down in instances where my pace may not have been accommodative of a nearby hairpin bend. They are too many to mention by name but they know who they are.

Finally, I am indebted to the South African public for their trust in the Office. This trust is demonstrated, firstly, in the ever-increasing number of complaints we receive year after year and, secondly, they are never hesitant to write to me about disenchantment with the manner the office has treated them.

A Mr Nero wrote to me and poured his heart out in disgust at the service he had received. The matter was later resolved not because Mr Nero got the relief he sought but because we owned up to our mistakes and did right by him.

I stress that in their pursuit of justice, it does not matter to the consumer that the result may not favour them. They trusted us with their stories with the comfort that we will not undermine the seriousness of their pain and that we will apply the law in resolution of their complaints.