SA banks accused of systemic discrimination – the ongoing battle for justice

Published Sep 7, 2023


By Feroza Petersen

FINANCIAL investigations consultant Emerald van Zyl made public, in an interview with The Falcons Investigations Unit in 2022, decades-long discrimination by South African banks, particularly Standard Bank, aimed at maximising profits at the expense of black clients.

This was not the first time for Van Zyl to publicise his views as he has been given the moniker “Bond Renegotiator” on social media where he has also shared his views on the banks.

He was approached amid the highly publicised David vs Goliath battle between the Sekunjalo Group and the banks in South Africa where Independent Media’s bank accounts faced arbitrary closure by Standard Bank, sparking outrage and demands for accountability.

Van Zyl, a seasoned financial investigations consultant with more than 30 years of experience, spelled out the shocking extent of discrimination practised by South African banks, which showed a deeply ingrained culture of bias that disproportionately affects black clients.

Van Zyl explained how banks had been charging black bondholders significantly higher interest rates on mortgages and motor vehicle loans compared to their white counterparts, amounting to up to 40% more in some cases.

His investigations unveiled deeply troubling patterns of discrimination dating back to the late 1980s. He exposed how Saambou Bank’s collapse in 2002 triggered Standard Bank’s discriminatory practices against black homebuyers, leaving them overcharged by up to 100%.

Thousands of black homeowners inherited Saambou Bank’s excessive fees when FNB took over its bond book, with average overcharges of R60 000 on R60 000 bonds.

Moreover, Van Zyl’s findings are not isolated. Law firm Godrich Gardee Attorneys (GGA) has called for clients who have experienced racial or other forms of discrimination by financial institutions to join a class-action suit against the country’s banks.

This movement underscores the widespread frustration and outrage over the perceived abuse of power and discrimination by these financial giants.

Meanwhile, the Sekunjalo Group, led by chairman Iqbal Survé, has approached the Competition Tribunal and the Equality Court to challenge the actions of South Africa’s major banks, including Standard Bank, who aim to close the Group’s and related entities’ bank accounts.

Survé has argued that the banks’ actions are a violation of their constitutional rights and constitute unfair discrimination that must be overturned. His case has garnered widespread support and highlights the urgent need for accountability in the banking sector.

Despite the mounting evidence of systemic discrimination, many believe that the regulatory bodies tasked with overseeing the banking sector are failing to hold these institutions accountable.

Van Zyl, Survé, and GGA have voiced concerns over the lack of political willpower to address these issues, with Van Zyl stating that consumer protection in South Africa has effectively collapsed.

A recent report from the Ombudsman for Banking Services (OBS), which recorded a 7% increase in complaints, further underscores the growing discontent among banking clients.

Complaints range from fraud and maladministration to the arbitrary closure of bank accounts and repossessions, all contributing to the sense of powerlessness that many clients feel.

Van Zyl’s findings and the ongoing battle against, among others, Standard Bank’s actions shine a harsh light on the discriminatory practices within South Africa’s financial services industry.

The allegations of overcharging, racial profiling and a lack of accountability are deeply concerning and demand immediate attention from regulators, policymakers, and the broader public.

The fight for justice in the banking sector is far from over, and it's a fight that all South Africans have a stake in.