At the Reserve Bank the new governor has taken the swing door in, the departing governor has taken the well-oiled swing door out.
But there is more that is noteworthy about Gill Marcus’s appointment. Initially, Tito Mboweni wanted to stay and President Zuma agreed to extend his contract by a year. Then in June last year Mboweni suddenly announced that he didn’t want to stay on after all; he had “other interests to pursue”. Zuma wasted no time – within a month he had announced his choice of successor: Absa non-executive chairperson Ms Marcus.
Asked what his “other interests” were, Mboweni replied: “I think I’ll go fishing.” So Zuma said “OK, go fishing”(?). That could be fanagalo for Donald Trump’s favourite phrase: “You’re fired!” Then again, there are clues that Mboweni may have been fishing for some time, had hooked a juicy one and was in a hurry to land his catch. So what’s curious about Marcus’s appointment – and, particularly, its timing? One need look no further than that arrogant but smart young German banker called Michael Duerr.
Noseweek readers were introduced to Duerr some while back – and may have dismissed him as an amusing or simply weird phenomenon. The Reserve Bank have certainly tried their best to promote that view – but recent events show they are taking him, and his threat to expose the inner workings of the bank to unwelcome public scrutiny, very, very seriously.
Mboweni, it seems, could no longer take the heat Duerr was generating and fled; Absa’s link-by-marriage to the ANC was rushed in to help turn down the heat – and, more than likely, to look after Absa’s interests – the ones put most immediately at risk by the German’s determination to have the Reserve Bank’s less salubrious activities over the past decade revealed.
Hlengani Mathebula, a former senior manager of Absa, has been appointed Marcus’s personal advisor. Mr Moraitis of law firm Jan S de Villiers/Werksmans is ever at her side when Duerr is near. By the beginning of May it was panic stations at the Reserve Bank. Marcus had just declared that she felt she would be “wasting her time” talking to Duerr – who for months has been asking for a meeting “to clear the air”.
She had, she said, “better things to do.”
So, on 1 May Duerr wrote to Marcus setting out his grievances: lack of corporate governance, dividends, voting rights, SARB’s legal status and illegal lifeboats, to name just a few. Perhaps unwisely, the outspoken Bavarian reminded the governor that “apartheid is over. Everybody has the right to engage in the corporate governance and monetary policy issues”.
It’s the dirty stuff from the bad old days, such as the notorious lifeboat which gave Absa the jitters.
Next on the list were more recent events – such as Case 33007/09 in the Pretoria High Court, which deals with approximately R46m in losses suffered by Absa clients, allegedly due to the bank’s failure to follow the required FICA procedures. A crime.
On 3 May Duerr received an early-morning acknowledgment from the governor’s email address: “Dear Mr Duerr, given the importance with which I regard your statements, I would like time to consider the matters raised.” Duerr’s hope that the gap between them might be bridged lasted just 60 minutes. At 9.30am he found a note from a Press Association reporter: What could he tell SAPA about a press conference due to be held by the Finance Minister later that day at the Union Buildings about a new Reserve Bank Act? Nothing. So he called Marcus’s office: her PA, Sandra Brown, also knew nothing. At Pravin Gordhan’s office, the Finance Minister’s PA, too, had “nothing in the calendar. I would know about it”. Even the PA to government spokesperson Themba Maseko regarded the happening as “not possible.”
Yet, by 2pm, the Minister of Finance had assembled the friendly press (noseweek was not invited) in room 153 of the Union Buildings, to announce that he would be “piloting” a Bill “designed to limit the influence of private shareholders over the central bank”. Judging by how things are being rushed along, the Bill will be pushed through as if there is no tomorrow.
In Marcus’s subsequent letter, instead of the expected in-depth answers to Duerr’s questions, she told him to piss off with his “so-called shareholder activism” and “scurillous allegations”, and said his “scheme” to invest in SARB shares constituted “nothing more than a desire to realise profit”. Noseweek is quoted twice as an authoritative source of information.
Her last paragraph is the most poignant: “I consider your allegations levelled at the Bank regarding unaccounted and perhaps illegal financial assistance packages, or ‘lifeboats’, as not only scurilous but defamatory.”
Duerr’s past makes him a dangerous opponent. His network in the banking industry includes his former employer, Goldman Sachs. Which reminds us that shortly after leaving the SARB, Mboweni concluded a “handsome advisory contract” with President Obama’s favourite banking group – Goldman Sachs. Here’s the catch: during Mboweni’s tenure, Goldman Sachs was appointed (by the SA Reserve Bank) as an official dealer in South African government bonds. Commissions are earned on such sales, the higher the tier the more commission. Does Mboweni’s “advisory contract” smell a bit fishy? “What are you going to do about this?” Duerr cheekily asked Marcus in his letter. Nothing, we suspect. He’d said he was going fishing.
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