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Those Apartheid Billions: Absa's Repayment Could Fix South Africa's Education Crisis

It's not only Absa, there's a range of companies that received loans which they should pay back.

17/01/2017 16:54 SAST | Updated 18/01/2017 07:04 SAST
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Absa Bank

As Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane finalises her report into the missing apartheid billions, recovering that disputed money could go a long way to redressing the legacy of apartheid and helping to build a better South Africa.

Activists who have been advocating that action be taken and the funds recovered believe that had the money not been siphoned off from the government coffers, some of the problems facing the country could have been avoided.

Dr. Marjorie Jobson from Khulumani Support Group said that the fact that when the new government took over in 1994 it had to pay off the apartheid debt makes it necessary for the funds to be recovered.

"The minimum is about R30 billion which should be paid back. It's not only Absa, it's a range of companies that received loans which they have to pay back. The money was illegally removed from the country. The apartheid debt was something like R35 billion and that could have wiped the slate clean. These are just some of the reasons why these people should not get away with it," she said.

South Africans should be outraged and aggrieved by the looting, said Jobson. She said the details that exist point to at least 900 bank accounts in Luxembourg which should be tracked.

"There was a lot of investigations done into the matter. They must pay back the money with interest. That is the normal thing to do," she said.

Former journalist turned filmmaker Sylvia Vollenhoven produced a documentary titled Project Spear - Truth Be Told - South Africa's Stolen R30 billion which looked at the money effectively stolen from the South African Reserve Bank. The move had catastrophic consequences which are still being felt, as the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality could have been better addressed.

Vollenhoven said the government can not afford to turn a blind eye on the matter.

"It's about the state having inherited a serious mess. In modern society when a crime is committed we have to prosecute the perpetrators. There is a mountain of evidence and information available to indicate that a crime did take place. We have a crisis in our education system. We are not a state that can afford to turn a blind eye on this. That can go a long way to alleviate the problem," she said.

The matter could have been settled many years ago but due to government's backtracking on investigations and losing millions in the process the apartheid billions were left to the public protector to recover. Paul Hoffman, a Cape Town-based advocate and activist who took the matter to the Office of the public protector to investigate in 2011, said he found the government's behaviour in the matter to be suspect.

According to Hoffman, red flags were raised when the government ditched the investigation at the last minute.

"Doing secret deals with public money that don't promote the interest of the people is inconsistent and incompatible with the values of the new South Africa. It's not about the money but having government institutions that are open, accountable and responsive. What interested us was that the new South African government spent R10 million on a project of recovering the money but instead of pressing the green button to say go, they terminated it. It struck us as being unresponsive. It amounted to maladministration," he said.

Hoffman said Mkhwebane's leaked preliminary report suggests that there was maladministration and the government allowed the implicated people and institutions to be left untouched.

In her preliminary report, which was published by The Mail and Guardian, Mkhwebane recommends that Absa must pay back R2.25bn to the Reserve Bank. The report said it was because of an illegal and improper loan, donation or "lifeboat" made to a now-defunct bank, Bankorp, which Absa acquired in the early 1990s.

If recovered, that money would still have an invaluable impact on addressing social inequality, enabling the poor and missing middle to finally break free of the apartheid inheritance and start on the path to bettering their lives.

Researcher and activist Hennie van Vuuren, who is writing a book on the issue, echoed the sentiments saying that South Africa's triple threat challenges could be a thing of the past if the money is recovered. While the issue of free quality tertiary education is still a hot topic and the government says there aren't funds to cover it, perhaps the answer lies here.

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