By Jenna Etheridge and Cebelihle Mthethwa
First published on News24

More than 20 civil society groups have submitted their recommendations to the Zondo commission on how to reform the state and private sector in the wake of state capture.

An Agenda for Action was submitted to the commission this month by organisations including Open Secrets, the Dullah Omar Institute, Equal Education and Corruption Watch.

The coalition was based on their unity against the looting of public funds and a commitment to promoting the interests of the public.

At a briefing on Wednesday, Open Secrets researcher Mike Marchant said their submission sought to “put on the agenda the fact that banks, law firms, consultancies and accountants sit at the heart of the economy which enables corruption”.

It was not necessarily a solution to turn away from the State and towards the private sector for solutions to state capture, he said.

Together with Shadow World Investigations, their investigative report The Enablers hoped to draw the commission’s attention to the role of the private sector in facilitating alleged criminal conduct.

Organised crime network

Marchant raised the recent scandal surrounding global consultancy firm McKinsey, who subcontracted Gupta-linked firm Trillian, allegedly without a contract in place, to assist with developing a turnaround plan for Eskom. McKinsey settled with Eskom in July 2018, agreeing to pay back nearly R1bn and admitting it overcharged the parastatal, Fin24 reported.

With any organised crime network, the main challenge was obscuring the fact that money was illicitly obtained and then getting that money out, he said.

With the Estina/Vrede dairy project, Marchant questioned why banks facilitated transactions instead of flagging and stopping it. “For example, why would a local dairy company be sending money to Dubai?

“And yet those banks banked that company for years, Standard Bank for many years prior to 2015. Remarkably FNB [First National Bank] continued to bank Estina even after the Free State department had cancelled the contract.”

‘Pay back the money’

He said some of their recommendations were aimed at the role of the Zondo commission, such as changing the narrative.

“The TRC didn’t look at the private sector during apartheid and the entrenched system of corruption. [Zondo] has the opportunity to place private actors from the margins to central analysis.”

Standard Bank’s former group legal counsel Ian Sinton, who has testified more than once at the commission, first told Zondo that the bank was allegedly pressured to rescind a decision to close its business with the Guptas’ Oakbay company in September 2018, News24 reported.

FNB also testified on the same incident, with former First Rand CEO Johan Burger saying it played hardball and declined to attend a meeting called by an inter-ministerial committee to discuss the closure of the Guptas’ accounts, News24 reported. It was the first time in his 32 years in banking he had heard of such a request.

In another appearance in March 2019, Sinton attempted to show how multi-million rand transactions were made between certain Gupta-linked company accounts, having first been transferred from state-owned enterprises like Transnet and Eskom, News24 reported.

Marchant said the commission should use its powers to interrogate banking executives on what steps they took to stop very conspicuous and corrupt transactions.

There should also be a change in how to “pay back the money”, perhaps by creating a fund to benefit the true victims of state capture.

“Corporations which have been caught out quickly pay back the fees from the project, say sorry and move on,” said Marchant, adding that these fees did not account for the damage wrought on vulnerable institutions.

Implicated firms should not pick and choose where the money went to try and “whitewash their reputations”.

Open Secrets director Hennie van Vuuren said they believed the joint submission by the civil society groups could achieve the change that was needed.