FNB's role in Nkandla undermines their campaign

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

FNB has been celebrated for their latest ad campaign but, as Verashni Pillay points out, they have their own sins to deal with.

The latest advertising gimmick has many South Africans once again feting FNB as the darling of the otherwise dodgy banking industry.

Forgive me for not buying it.

FNB launched their You can Help brand campaign in Soweto last week through a series of online videos, in which a number of stilted South African teenagers shared their views on the country.

Naturally, the ANC had a minor heart attack about being called out on corruption, the lack of jobs and more by 17-year-olds who would be voting in the next elections.

The bank canned the most offensive of the videos after the subsequent accusations of being “treasonous” and “treacherous”. It was nostalgic stuff from a mysteriously revived ANC Youth League, which is clearly bent on winning back President Jacob Zuma’s favour.

It worked. FNB removed the videos featuring criticisms of government, citing concerns for the children involved.

The move seemed to imbue the bank with a martyr’s halo. The opposition Democratic Alliance made noises about how government’s bullying was reminiscent of apartheid censorship, a News24 reader punted FNB for president and Twitter exploded with general "for shames" all round.

See readers' responses on Twitter here

Despite marketing gurus calling the campaign weak and problematic, the saga proved the adage: there is no such thing as bad advertising.

Indeed FNB emerges with the moral upper hand in this scenario. As many of our readers, who are incensed with our government, pointed out: the bank was just saying what we all know to be true: our country faced serious challenges.

And I agree with that – so far. The teenagers in the video rightly referenced the most damning of our government and ruling party’s failures in recent years. Of particular mention was the Limpopo textbook scandal and, of course, Nkandla.

"What are we to expect when our president is more concerned with a R200-million upgrade to his residence,” fumed one teenager. Or something like that. It’s difficult to remember the exact wording with the video no longer available.

Indeed, let’s talk about Nkandla. FNB partnered with young children and used them as a mouthpiece to lobby deserving shots at government for not honouring the South African people. But the bank itself is not entirely blame-free.

Towards the end of last year the Mail & Guardian broke the damning Zuma payments story. A KPMG report showed how our president lived far beyond his means to accommodate his life of excess, relying dangerously on funders and organisations that expected political favours down the line.

One of those organisations was FNB. According to evidence collated by audit firm KPMG and presented in its 2006 forensic report FNB granted Zuma a R900 000 bond for Nkandla after a senior bank official wrote: "I am sure that the powers that be will assist us where we need to bend the rules a little."

This is where I’m supposed to drive the point home in this column, but really, this documented quote says it all.

This decision was taken despite Zuma repeatedly defaulting on his debt on a scale that would have left any other South African foul of any financial institution in South Africa, without a penny to their name.

To date FNB has chosen not to respond to our article.

Now a bank is a vast institution. The marketing department responsible for the series of adverts probably had nothing to do with that terrible and ethically flawed decision. [In fact some of the readers of this column have subsequently reminded me that the granting of the bond – or loan as FNB has claimed – coincides with presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj's tenure as a director of FirstRand, the holding company for FNB. Which goes to show how deep the sometimes problematic relationships of power runs between government and business].

Other financial institutions were similarly tainted by the report, and the fact that our banks regularly behave in dubious and unethical ways is not news to anyone.

But for FNB to get up on some sort of moral platform and accuse government of behaving badly without confronting this part of its past is disingenuous at best.

FNB as a brand and an organisation regularly presents itself as somehow different and special. Ask Steve from beep bank. They’re the ones trying to make our lives easier with their innovative banking practices and Twitter-savvy PR.

And now they’re trying to help make this country better, as they pointed out in the statement about the campaign. They even went so far as to quote Nelson Mandela, always a sure winner.

"If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness."

It was also Mandela who told us to forgive “but never forget”.

Let’s see how good FNB are at the latter, as they rightly call for all South Africans to work together to rid this country of corruption.

Verashni, a Rhodes University Alumni, is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. 

Source: Mail & Guardian