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The African Banker

Sam Motsuenyane on the struggles and rewards of creating a bank for Africans under apartheid.

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It is 1:30PM in Winterveld, north west of Pretoria. Arbitrarily, winter has given way to summer in June and laid a lavish ceremony of color in the sky. Just what climate activists need to spark a global warming debate.

Sam Motsuenyane lives here, in a community where everyone seems to fit in well. Winterveld is not a community built on the strength of one character. If you can get off the divan of your middle class comfort of a Houghton or a Sandton community, it is possible to fit in.

In his house, Motsuenyane’s presence transfixes and dominates the room. Like a bishop about to dispense his sacramental powers, a magnificent cane twirling gently in his hand—he is able to put you at ease. His patented seTswana inflection certainly enriches his guests. The house is consistent with his personality—simple, smart, immaculate and sparse with some classic utilitarian furniture. A statement if any, that says he was not in the struggle against apartheid for monetary recompense.

On the corner next to the sitting room door is a black leather recliner sofa, donated to him by New African Investment Limited (NAIL), former owners of the Sowetan newspaper and former part owners of Sunday World newspaper with 50% shares. The seat came with the friendly instruction that he must use it.

“Now that you are here I should make use of it,” he chuckles.

Motsuenyane still works, at the age of 87, on his small citrus farm in his yard. He checks the books, gives advice and attends to the farming project with body, soul and mind. He is viscerally attached to the people.

“Yes, you are right,” he says when asked if he was the founding chairman of the African Bank.

“I have been the chairman for 20 years. But prior to its establishment, as president of the National African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NAFCOC), I pioneered the bank’s establishment.”

For a period of 10 years he had to raise capital from black people who did not have money.

“We eventually raised the necessary $100,000 (R1 million),” he says.

The background of the bank is a narrative arc of agony and ecstasy.

The idea of the African Bank was discussed at great length at the inaugural conference of NAFCOC in 1964.

“This conference was called with a view to uniting black business people throughout the country, who at that time had small business organizations in various places but then did not have unified movement to speak to government with one voice.”

“We had laws at that time that were oppressive and we felt the need to come together and talk about those laws and how to work against them.”

The Johannesburg African Chambers of Commerce took the initiative to call all the small business organizations throughout the country. At that time the chamber was headed by Richard Maponya. It took the decision to bring together all of the various small businesses to the conference where they could discuss issues relating to their development.

The conference was a success but their biggest stumbling block was the lack of access to funding.

“We could not get sufficient support from the banks at that time.”

Encouraged by black people running their own banks in the United States, NAFCOC asked themselves why black people couldn’t start their own bank in South Africa.

“White banks were reluctant to fund us.”

That strengthened their resolve to form their own bank.

“A voluntary donation was made. We just took money out of our pockets and said let’s see how serious we are. And an amount of $7 (R70) was collected from the members and this money was banked under the name The National Fund,” he says.

An idea to get $0,1 (R1) from each of the 18 million black people in the country was proposed. The people, however, were filled with doubt and suspicion.

One of the things that helped dispel their doubt was when Motsuenyane  went to London in 1972 with a group of business people.

Motsuenyane requested a meeting with Anthony Keith, then chairman of Barclays bank.

“We discussed how they could  assist us in setting up the African Bank.”

In order to set up the bank, they needed to train their employees, build trust and build capital.

Barclays helped organize training and then invested in the bank.

People back in South Africa were encouraged by the support shown by Barclays.

“After that we saw enthusiasm on the part of the people. They contributed money and between 1972 and 1974 we raised the outstanding amount.”

“The African Bank encountered problems towards the end of Motsuenyane’s term.

“This related to raising sufficient equity, basically people buying shares. The bank’s development was based on limited capital from people who did not have sufficient resources. Our shares started on $10 (R100) and so on. As the bank grows, according to the requirements of the banking law, when you take money from people or deposits, you must also increase your capital.”

“Ultimately the Reserve Bank had to impose the legal requirements which said we must find somebody with big money to invest in the bank,” he says.

Unable to raise capital overseas, eventually African Bank was able to raise $10 million (R100 million) from the Natal Building Society (NBS) and NAIL.

“We increased the equity and when that happened at the time the control of the bank moved into the hands of those who had contributed more money. Control moved out of the hands of the NAFCOC members who were small equity holders to those who had put more money into the bank,” he says.

Motsuenyane had to step down as chairman as control went more and more into the hands of white capitalists.

“They believed that the African Bank had potential. They did not even change its name. They built on our foundations but then changed the character of the bank,” he says bitterly.

“We had built the bank as a savings and loan company. This was to encourage people to save and at the same time give loans to people. But these guys  removed the savings aspect and retained the lending aspect. Today the bank is a lending organization and that was not in line with our original planning.”

Just when it was time to wrap up, he remembers another point.

“A certain group of white guys from Finansies Bank came to the board and said that we are required to have a foreign exchange arm of the bank.”

African Bank CEO, Moses Maubane  spoke to them about the offer by Finansies Bank.

“They wanted to set up a foreign exchange arm of the bank in order to attract foreign investors. We trusted that our CEO would monitor the activities of these people,” he says.

“Before long he gave the board a report that these people were keeping a certain commission and that they paid themselves lots of money.”

“We asked him to investigate how they managed to make money using our bank but they co-opted him and he became the shareholder in that arm. He did not disclose this to the bank. Before long we found that these men had violated foreign exchange regulations to the extent that the bank was stopped from operating.”

“At that time I became accused No.1 on behalf of the bank,” he says.

Motsuenyane was absolved of any blame but the guys from Finansies Bank were sentenced to seven years each.

He turns to look at his watch. It’s 2:45PM. “I think I have given you the story.”

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