Critics have been too quick to dismiss a leaked preliminary report by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, ignoring potentially explosive information the report may contain, researcher and activist Hennie van Vuuren has said.
On Friday the Mail & Guardian reported on the leaked report, which recommends that Absa pay back R2,25 billion which a bank it bought, Bankorp, received as part of an unlawful apartheid-era bailout from the South African Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank, the National Treasury and the Presidency were fingered in the report for not acting on the information earlier.
"What we understand is that Thuli Madonsela did speak to the governor of the Reserve Bank at the time, Dr Chris Stals," Van Vuuren said. "And he confirmed that Absa committed in writing that they repay the interest on the loan. This is really significant and pretty extraordinary."
Van Vuuren said he and other researchers have found it extraordinarily difficult to get these sort of concessions or information in their years of work on the topic. He is a senior research associate at the Open Secrets project and is working on a book on apartheid-era economic crime.
It's a top insider breaking ranks
"It is an issue that myself and others have been working on for a number of years and struggled to gain traction around," said Van Vuuren. "There is a fair amount of resistance."
Which makes Stals's concession, in the leaked Public Protector report, all the more powerful.
"For the first time you have an insider who is breaking ranks and saying money is owed. It is extraordinary because he was the most important insider at the time. Stals was one the most powerful people in the economy at the time. He was Governor of the Reserve Bank when it issued the loan. In addition, he was a member of the Broederbond, and Bankorp had ties with the Broederbond and the National Party."
Mkhwebane critics, who are concerned she is closely tied to President Jacob Zuma's interests, have read much in this choice of a first report.
After the M&G story broke, BusinessLive editor Ray Hartley wrote that one conspiracy theory could make links to the fact that "Absa was among the banks that pulled the plug on Gupta-family bank accounts and has been fairly outspoken on this matter".
Since then there has been a lot of concern about the angle of the report and whether it was twisted by the new Public Protector, after it had been finalised by her predecessor Madonsela.
Madonsela has however declined to comment on this.
Van Vuuren said the political environment was obscuring the evidence presented. "I do think the report is being seen through very particular lens, a lens of the context of so much else that is happening right now in terms of the Guptas, Absa, the Ruperts. Inevitably this was going to all be a highly politicised and contentious issue."
There is a crucial new piece of evidence
But what is clear is that there is a crucial new piece of evidence that is different from previous investigations, including the panel headed by Judge Dennis Davis, which Absa has relied heavily on in its defence, as well as the Heath investigation.
"I think the problem right now is that all this is being dismissed as some sort of [conspiracy]," said Van Vuuren.
"The Public Protector's investigation is potentially helpful as it means that the much-touted Ciex report, representing the interests of a British company of private investigators, doesn't dominate our narrative," he added, referencing the British intelligence firm, Ciex, that was behind the original report to government in the late '90s.
"It would be terrible if our institutions were indeed beholden to some sort of British foreign private agency with interests," he added.
"What we have is a person who was central to those things coming forward and Stals is saying he has evidence to prove that Absa is in the wrong. He is effectively breaking ranks. What we're missing is an appreciation that this could be important new evidence. This could be confirmed as soon as the public protector's final report is released which should happen without delay."
In a subsequent interview published after this article Stals has said the public protector misunderstood him and said Absa had settled all its obligations in 1995 with regards to the loan.