Billy Masetlha, South Africa's spy boss at the turn of the century, believes he was duped into agreeing that interest on the loan by the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) to Absa should not be recovered.
According to Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane's provisional report into the SARB's so-called "lifeboat" to Bankorp (which was bought by Absa), between 1985 and 1995, Masetlha says he was the "main coordinator" of the investigation into the Absa/Bankorp deal.
He is the first former senior government official to break ranks and say that there is monies that can be recovered from Absa. Both Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel, respectively president and minister of finance during the time of the investigation, disagree and say if there were benefits that accrued to the shareholders of Bankorp or Absa, it is not worth it to institute a reparations process.
The public protector is investigating why government seemingly did not act on a report compiled by a private British firm that claimed it could recover "billions of rands" in funds looted under the apartheid regime. The firm, Ciex, was run by former British intelligence operatives and approached the government in 1997.
Masetlha signed an agreement with Ciex on behalf of government.
According to the agreement the government would pay Ciex a monthly retainer while it initiated its investigations. It would also receive a percentage of all funds recovered by it. The agreement was terminated in December 1998, but Ciex produced a report in 1999 in which it outlined all the monies it said it would be able to recover — including an amount of R3,2 billion from Absa.
According to Mkhwebane's provisional report Mbeki said he was not part of any decision not to ask Ciex to proceed with recovery efforts on behalf of government. Manuel told the public protector the decision not to go ahead was based on fears of a systemic threat to the economy, which included a run on the banks and the economy. Mbeki agreed with him.
Mkhwebane says in the report government contravened various acts by not pursuing the Ciex report.
Masetlha, who in 1997 was the head of the South African Secret Service (SASS), concedes he agreed with Manuel and Mbeki's fears about threats to the economy, "but now believes it was a ruse and that the money could have been recovered".
He has been contacted for comment, but has not yet been available.
The public and Masetlha's view differs from that of an investigation by Judge Dennis Davis, conducted between 2000 and 2002, which found it would be "extremely difficult" to recover any benefit that accrued to shareholders of the main actors in the transaction between the SARB and Absa/Bankorp.