Serge Belamant, Sassa and the 'war chest' of poor people

16 March 2017 - Social grants beneficiaries are being targeted by Net-one in order to sell them its other products. eNCA speaks to investigative journalist Sam Sole, who worked on this story. Video: eNCA
File: The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) contracted CPS in 2012 to pay social grants nationwide. Photo: Gallo / Alet Pretorius

Craig McKune | amaBhungane

JOHANNESBURG - The US-listed firm Net 1 uses its subsidiary Cash Paymaster Services’ (CPS) social grant contract as a secret backdoor to get grant beneficiaries’ information, an amaBhungane investigation shows. This was always forbidden. Then Net 1 uses the information to make billions selling loans, insurance and other financial products to beneficiaries.

But Net 1’s executive chairman Serge Belamant has repeatedly denied this – under oath.

The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) contracted CPS in 2012 to pay social grants nationwide. CPS has since enrolled about 17-million people and given them cards and accounts with Grindrod Bank, a subcontractor. The grants are paid into the Grindrod accounts.

The Sassa contract specifically forbade CPS and its subcontractors from using the beneficiaries’ information for anything but paying grants.

But other companies in the Net 1 group are using the Sassa cards and beneficiary data to access the grant beneficiaries’ Grindrod bank account history and their social grant details.

This gives Net 1 an information edge over its peers when it lends money or sells insurance and other products, because it can sign up customers with no paperwork and almost zero risk of bad loans.

The department of social development, the Black Sash, a human rights advocacy group, and others have long complained that since CPS took over, there has been a huge increase in debits from social grants for loans, electricity, airtime and insurance.

They argue that paying for these products traps South Africa’s poorest in a cycle of debt, undermining the purpose of the grants, which is to pay for basic needs.

Since CPS won its contract five years ago, Net 1’s financial services revenues have grown radically.

Net 1 is responsible for most of the R550-million that comes off beneficiaries’ bank accounts for financial services every month, court papers show.

Net 1 argues that it provides a valuable service to beneficiaries who are not served by banks.

The Constitutional Court ruled in 2014 that the contract was invalid, but it let CPS keep it so that grant payments would not be interrupted.

A number of senior social grant officials and the national treasury want to get rid of CPS as soon as possible – partly because they want to stop Net 1 from debiting money from social grant accounts and partly because the original contract was invalid.

Social development minister Bathabile Dlamini has tried to rewrite the Social Assistance act to stop debits from Sassa grants. Net 1 is fighting this in the Pretoria high court.

But Dlamini has also controversially sought to extend CPS’s term by up to three years, which would give Net 1 ample time to herd beneficiaries onto its books – out of Sassa’s reach.

Perverse incentives

It is regularly claimed – in government, in financial circles and by activists – that Net 1 leverages the Sassa contract to sell its loans, insurance and other financial products.

“[CPS] completely undermined and disregarded Sassa's instructions not to expose beneficiaries to risks,” Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza told the high court last year. “They saw social grant beneficiaries as easy targets for exploitation and Net 1 developed their whole business model around this, … developing a bunch of separate entities that use this payment system to exploit grant beneficiaries through the sale of loans, airtime, and electricity.”

But Belamant said the National Consumer Tribunal and the Competition Commission have both investigated the claims “and properly rejected them as unfounded”.

He told eNCA this month he would resign from Net 1 “if anyone can come and show me where we are doing things like this”.

Here’s where and how, Serge

AmaBhungane has long received a stream of tipoffs that Net 1 was breaking the rules. I emailed Belamant in January to ask, is it true that Net 1 uses CPS’s access to social grant data when it sells beneficiaries loans, funeral insurance and the like?

“Happy new year to you as well,” Belamant began. “I am not sure which individuals or which companies are ‘tipping’ you off or their reason for doing so. If these organisations are willing to pay you for conducting this type of investigation, I can only see benefit for us. It is quite obvious that our competitors will claim that we are doing something untoward.”

He seemed to be accusing me of taking bribes to investigate him. This is not true.

He continued: “No. We do not use any data we have collected for Sassa. This service has nothing to do with Sassa whatsoever.”

He told me to visit a Net 1 branch to see for myself.

I went to Net 1’s “Moneyline” branch in Athlone, Cape Town. Moneyline is the Net 1-owned money lender. The shop is conveniently located a three-minute walk from the nearest Sassa branch.

Its doorway advertises “social grant cash withdrawals”, “instant affordable loans”, “life insurance”, “your green card to financial freedom” and “secure banking for all”.

A long queue of pensioners, mothers and children waited on the baking hot pavement. Everyone I spoke to was desperate for a cash loan. Everyone was a Sassa grant beneficiary.

When I got to the door, it opened a crack. A grim security guard asked me what I wanted. I wanted to apply for a loan and a green card, I said. I couldn’t, he said, because I was not a registered grant beneficiary and did not carry a Sassa card.

Not “for all”, then.

When Net 1’s subsidiary CPS enrolls beneficiaries on behalf of Sassa, it electronically stores their identity numbers, contact details, fingerprints and other details. These are tied to new Sassa accounts – where the grant will be paid – at CPS’s subcontractor bank, Grindrod. The beneficiary is given a Sassa-branded Grindrod card, which stores these details.

The fingerprints serve as a biometric “proof of life”, unlocking the card and the electronic data within, so only the beneficiary can get her money.

If Net 1 used beneficiaries’ fingerprints and Sassa cards to unlock this information, do instant affordability assessments and create standing debit orders – all in one quick visit – it could hugely streamline its sales, decrease its costs and outcompete the market.

For example, I visited a traditional microlender in downtown Cape Town. They compete with Moneyline. I told a lady at the sales desk I received a Sassa grant and wanted to borrow cash. She said I had to bring my ID book, proof of address, bank statements and a Sassa certificate to prove my income.

“But I have my Sassa card and my ID with me,” I lied. “Can’t you just use my card like at Net 1?”

“Unfortunately not sir,” she said.

I emailed Belamant to ask, do you only sell products to grant beneficiaries? “No,” he said. “We target the unbanked or under-banked segments.” Three times, he denied exclusively targeting grant beneficiaries.

He also said: “The Sassa card in this procedure is not required or useful.” For Net 1 to assess if clients could afford a loan, they “must provide Moneyline with bank statements – the same as any other micro-lender”. Financial regulations also required them to bring their proof of address, he said.

Confused, I called a Moneyline call centre. A man named Solly answered.

“I would like to apply for a Moneyline loan,” I said. “What should I do?”

“You need to visit your nearest Moneyline branch with your Sassa card and your ID,” said Solly.

“Do I need to bring proof of my address?” I asked.

“No. Not really. You don’t have to,” he answered.

“And do I have to bring my printed bank statements?”

“No.”

Then I told him I am not actually a Sassa beneficiary. “So what should I do then?”

“You won’t qualify for any of our loans. It’s just for Sassa beneficiaries.”

“Why?”

“Because we deal with them only,” Solly finished, having contradicted Belamant on every count.

I phoned the call centre a few more times and got the same message from different people. Likewise, call centres for Moneyline’s EasyPay Everywhere “Green Card” accounts and Net 1’s Smart Life insurance policies assured me they only sold to Sassa beneficiaries.

“Because we will have to make a debit order from your [Sassa] account,” the Smart Life operator explained.

Competitive advantage

Back at the office, someone slipped me a copy of The Smart Life Insurance Company’s business plan. Smart Life is 100 percent owned by Net 1 and sells insurance to pay for funeral costs when clients die. The plan also thoroughly contradicted Belamant.

For example, it explained how Smart Life’s salespeople used the same Net 1 electronic point-of-sale system that CPS used to enroll and pay Sassa beneficiaries. Moneyline used the same system to sell loans.

The plan stated: “This device has the ability to verify client information and, through the use of biometric technology, there is no reliance on a physical signature.”

The beneficiaries’ biometric data – fingerprints stored on the Sassa card and Net 1’s system – is the same data CPS collected when it enrolled beneficiaries for Sassa.

When a beneficiary applied for a Smart Life policy, the business plan stated, Smart Life read her fingerprint data, taking this as biometric “permission” to “access the prospective policyholder’s account information on the smart card”.

Yet the 2012 Sassa-CPS contract forbade this: “The Contractor [CPS] shall not use Data belonging to Sassa for any purpose other than for the performance of the Services.” That is, for paying grants – not for selling insurance.

And: “’Data’ means the information (including Biometrics) of Beneficiaries obtained by the Contractor through the execution of the Agreement.”

Smart Life’s business plan stated: “The use of the Net 1 point-of-sale system and biometric verification of the policy holder will ensure that policies are sold to social grant beneficiaries only.” And, driving the point home: “Smart Life will have a competitive advantage over its peers by utilising existing technologies developed by the Net1 group.”

I wrote back to Belamant and accused him of lying to me and of breaching the Sassa-CPS contract.

“You are the investigative journalist,” he responded. “I assume therefore that you will make up your mind as to who and why someone is lying to you, if this is indeed the case. Little knowledge can often result in situations that can only be explained through the occult, although once understood the answer is simple enough.”

He finished off: “I think I have assisted you as much as I can. May the truth set you free.”

Getting beneficiary data

In search of “freedom”, I spoke to a Net 1 salesman, a Net 1 insider and a Sassa cardholder. They wanted to stay anonymous because they feared retaliation.

The salesman said he and two Net 1 colleagues drive to a rural Sassa pay point every month to flog Net 1’s products. The car is branded with CPS, Smart Life, Moneyline and Net 1 logos.

He also said only Sassa beneficiaries could buy Net 1’s products.

“Net 1 has a broad system of getting to the beneficiaries,” he explained. “For both the [Moneyline] loans and the Smart Life [funeral insurance], we are using a Bio 930 [a Net 1 point of sale device with a fingerprint sensor] where we have to put the beneficiary card, and it has all the information of the beneficiary.”

He said they insert the Sassa card into the device and the beneficiary provides a fingerprint: “Then it will show the ID number and the name of the person.

“For the loan, it shows from this machine, how much is he getting. The minute he puts the card and then he has to put his finger, the machine draws a slip which shows how much a person is earning [in social grant income].”

The funeral policy is slightly different, because the Social Assistance Act allows one funeral insurance deduction every month, capped at 10 percent of the grant value. He said the Net 1 system detected existing debit orders on the account and declined the sale if there was already a funeral policy debit in place.

A Sassa cardholder, who had applied for a Moneyline loan, gave a similar account.

The cardholder showed me the Net 1 printout from his transaction. After he inserted his card and fingerprint, the machine produced a slip that stated: “I hereby authorise Moneyline to access my bank account transaction history for the purposes of approving my loan request.”

The Net 1 insider confirmed, in detail, the accuracy of these accounts.

Yet Net 1 CFO Herman Kotze recently told the Pretoria High Court – under oath – that Net 1 and Moneyline “do not have, and do not seek, access to the beneficiaries’ accounts”.

And this month, Belamant told the Constitutional Court: “I have stated repeatedly under oath, and affirm again, that CPS does not share the beneficiary data that it captures during beneficiary enrolment or receives from Sassa with any third parties – including Net1 subsidiaries.”

A secret backdoor

In one email to me, Belamant seemed to defend Net 1 by way of cryptic tipoff. He wrote: “As a tip, try to understand the differences and the overlap between Sassa data and bank data and then, of course, CPS and non-CPS data.”

I asked him to explain himself. He ignored me.

Recall that, from 2012, CPS subcontracted Grindrod Bank to open bank accounts for each Sassa beneficiary, and Grindrod issued the Sassa cards. The broader Net 1 group also enjoys a partnership with Grindrod.

Belamant seemed to be telling me that, through Grindrod, Net 1 had legal backdoor access to beneficiary information.

Net 1’s lawyers laid this out more fully in recent court papers. They said beneficiaries “hold these bank accounts in their own names, and have a direct client/banker relationship with Grindrod. There is no contractual relationship between Sassa and Grindrod Bank, and Sassa does not operate the Grindrod accounts.”

This is a sleight of hand.

The CPS-Sassa contract says CPS can use subcontractors – Grindrod is a subcontractor – but it “shall be responsible to ensure that its sub-contractors comply with the terms of this Contract”.

In other words, neither CPS nor Grindrod can share any beneficiary information – specifically biometrics – that they gathered while executing the Sassa contract.

I asked the Net 1 insider if other companies could use the Sassa cards and fingerprints to get beneficiaries’ bank account information.

“Absolutely and emphatically not,” he said. “It is not technically possible for another party to access the Net 1 backend system where the data is stored.”

What about the data stored on the card? “Also impossible. Proprietary chip to Net 1. Cannot be read by any other institution.”

Serge’s “real deal!”

In a conference call last month, Belamant briefed investors on Net 1’s latest earnings. The earnings call was open to the public, so I listened in.

Telling them about Net 1’s financial products, Belamant said: “The provision of financial services to beneficiaries was an integral part of that initial tender submission. it was accepted by Sassa.

These are facts that cannot be denied.”

But they can be.

Rewind to August 2012, when Net 1 published its first annual report after winning the Sassa contract five months before. Belamant was upbeat in his opening remarks, writing: “This award secures our financial security and will add to our war chest.

“I am very optimistic that Net 1 has now entered the reaping stages of the seeds we have sown over the last few years.” He explained that over the next year, Net 1 would focus on integrating its loan and insurance business “into our national distribution network”. Their national distribution network existed almost entirely of Sassa beneficiaries.

I wrote an article for the Mail & Guardian, a month later, explaining how Belamant’s plan appeared to breach CPS’s contract with Sassa. Belamant denied this.

But papers filed in the Pretoria high court more recently show that Sassa’s CEO at the time, Virginia Petersen, disagreed with him.

Petersen wrote to Belamant, quoting the article and demanding an explanation. She said: “I wish to remind you that the contract that you have signed with Sassa strictly prohibits you from using

Sassa’s data for any business other than to pay social grants.”

Belamant responded with a six-page letter. He defended himself, telling Petersen that “access to and the provision of financial services is an integral part” of CPS’s 2011 tender.

This, at least, is true.

In any event, Belamant said: “No information of beneficiaries obtained by CPS through the execution of the contract … is necessary or utilized to render any financial services to beneficiaries.”

He sent a separate email the same day, including a “paper” he had written on “financial inclusion for all”. This he defined as “the facilitating of financial ‘products and services’ to the less advantaged and poorest of the poor.”

Unfortunately, he wrote, banks and other financial institutions were already coining it in the sector and were “therefore not inclined to upset the applecart”.

He begged for Petersen’s support, saying the CPS tender award “laid the groundwork to achieve the real deal!”. But: “To achieve this practically and quickly, we require the full commitment of Sassa as we will have to fight the existing institutions that will lose out due to this implementation/initiative.”

Petersen was not impressed. She wrote back: “Sassa accepted CPS's proposal in so far as it responded and relates to the payment of social grants. Sassa is not in a position to allow/agree and/or commit to the implementation of your request or proposal on ‘Financial Inclusion’.”

The letters flowed back and forth, literally for years.

In a January 2013 letter, Petersen accused CPS of breaching its contract with Sassa. She threatened to terminate it – but did not.

In 2014, Petersen threatened to obtain a court interdict to stop Net 1 from debiting loan, insurance and other payments from beneficiaries’ Sassa accounts. She did not.

Later that year, Sassa tried to review the Sassa-CPS service level agreement to stop the debit orders. That went nowhere.

So, in May 2016, Dlamini tried to rewrite the law instead. She promulgated amendments to the Social Assistance Act which, Sassa argued, banned any debit orders on the Sassa accounts.

Net 1 sued. Piling in with its subsidiaries and subcontractors and a few unrelated companies, Net 1 argued that Dlamini’s new law did not ban debit orders – and if it did, this was not constitutional.
Sassa, in turn, laid criminal charges – then withdrew them.

Thousands of pages of court papers were filed at the Pretoria high court. It heard the case in October 2016 but has not ruled yet.

Reaping it

Since CPS won the Sassa contract in 2012, Net 1’s revenues from its financial services business have grown by a factor of 70. Financial services now comprise about 50 percent of its profits.

Belamant often attributes this phenomenal growth to “word of mouth” marketing, but Net 1’s monopoly over access to the grant beneficiaries’ data appears to have given it a remarkable competitive advantage over traditional microlenders. 

For example, the Net 1 insider said Moneyline’s bad debt ratio is close to zero. He said: “I can confidently say Net 1 has the lowest bad debt ratio in the microfinance Industry.” If true, this would mean that nearly all loans extended to grant beneficiaries are repaid in full.

Recall that unlike Net 1’s Moneyline – which uses a beneficiary’s fingerprint to unlock information stored on the Sassa card – the competitor I visited in Cape Town required that I produce my ID book, proof of address, bank statements and a Sassa certificate to apply for a loan.

Net 1’s 2008 financial statements reveal the critical difference such information can make to a loan book’s performance. 

At the time, Net 1 was contracted to pay social grants in five South African provinces. These beneficiaries used Net 1 cards. It also had two money-lending businesses.

Net 1 described the one business as a “traditional” microlender which sold short-term, high interest loans to people. The other business sold loans to grant beneficiaries, using Net 1’s cards, much like they do today.

Of its traditional microlender, Net 1 reported: “Despite the fact that we attempt to reduce credit risk by employing credit profiling techniques, the rate of default on loans has been high due to the high credit risk of these borrowers and the difficulty of collecting outstanding repayments.”

Net 1 forecast that about 35 percent of these “traditional” loans could default, so it set aside funds to cover this.

But lending to social grant beneficiaries was another story. It said: “We consider [Net 1 card-based] lending less risky than traditional microfinance loans because the grants are distributed to these lenders by us, and these loans are insured.”

It did not set aside any money in case of defaults by grant beneficiaries.

Unsurprisingly, Net 1 sold the traditional microlender a few months later to focus on the second company, which grew to become Moneyline.

A June 2016 affidavit sworn by Grindrod Bank reveals that Moneyline alone accounted for nearly 70 percent of debits against grant beneficiaries’ Grindrod accounts between January and April 2016.

The getaway car

But this lucrative Net 1 revenue stream faces two threats.

The first threat is Dlamini’s attempt to change the law. If she is successful, Net 1 will not be able to debit money from beneficiary accounts to pay for financial products. However, Net 1 has already said this is likely to be fought to the Constitutional Court, which could take years.

The other threat is the expiry of CPS’s Sassa contract. It is due to end on March 31, but Dlamini is pushing to extend it by up to three years.

Other officials are pushing to get rid of CPS as soon as possible – after no more than one extra year. They want Sassa to pay most grants straight into beneficiaries’ bank accounts – at whichever banks they choose – when CPS’s contract ends. Sassa would pay the rest in cash.

If that happens – and if Sassa stops using the CPS-issued cards – Moneyline and Smart Life will not be able to use Net 1’s system to easily access 17-million beneficiaries’ information and secure debit orders on their accounts. Net 1 would have to queue, gather client information and load debit orders like any other lender or insurer.

So, Net 1 created its “Green Card” account – formally EasyPay Everywhere – in 2015. The accounts are run by Net 1’s loan business, Moneyline.

Net 1 designed the Green Card so it could herd Sassa beneficiaries onto its books – out of Sassa’s reach – before the contract ended or before Sassa account debit orders could be stopped.

One Net 1 advert calls out to “SASSA CARDHOLDERS”. It quotes Dlamini, who once said: “Government does not provide any loans to grant beneficiaries through the Sassa card.” Government would “block and reverse with immediate effect any debit deductions for loans and any other financial service”.

Dlamini was bluffing. While she can block deductions before the grants are paid into beneficiaries’ accounts, she holds no power, yet, to block debit orders from beneficiaries’ Sassa accounts.

The Net 1 advert continued: “Should you wish to have a loan, funeral policy or purchase prepaid airtime or electricity, please get an EasyPay Everywhere account.”

Another Green Card advert claimed, misleadingly: “Your social grant will NOT be stopped if you are an EasyPay Everywhere Green Card holder. Open your account today!”

To find out how it works, I went back to the Net 1 salesman, the Net 1 insider and the Sassa cardholder.

A green card to financial freedom

The Net 1 salesman told me how people wanting cash loans will approach his team in the Net 1 car near a grant paypoint.

“The person that does the loans, he will explain to the people that the government has said people are not allowed to have loans with Sassa cards. So, to have a loan, we are going to issue this card, which is EasyPay Everywhere,” he said.

“You must remember these are the old people. They don’t have to read and do whatever, because they need the money. That is why they took these EasyPay Everywhere cards, and I can tell you they don’t like them.”

He said: “Most of the beneficiaries here have these green cards and it charges R10.50 for each transaction and people are always complaining. If you are on a Sassa card, you get your whole money, but with this card, even if you have finished paying your loan, it will still charge you R10.50.”

But Herman Kotze, Net 1’s CFO, recently told the Pretoria High Court: “The EasyPay Everywhere account is popular with grant beneficiaries because it is cheaper than the Sassa account.”

That is another sleight of hand.

With the Sassa card, beneficiaries can draw their grant money for free from numerous stores, at Sassa pay points and at CPS. There is no free cash withdrawal option for the EasyPay Everywhere card.

The Net 1 salesman told me how – with the end of CPS’s contract approaching – the company put the sales staff under enormous pressure to get people onto Net 1’s books.

“We got monthly sales targets. They are all huge,” he said. “I think it started at 350 sales a month for the EasyPay cards, and then it goes down to 250. The [Moneyline] loans is 400. The Smart Life was 250 and then goes down to 150.

He said the company focused on changing beneficiaries from Sassa cards to Moneyline’s EasyPay Everywhere accounts: “Cause there were some stages where we were told we mustn’t worry about Smart Life. We must focus also helping the loans and the EasyPay cards. They were telling us this will be our future business.”

Late last year, he said, they were all called to a meeting in the nearest capital city. “Our general manager called all the staff. He was very, very angry about us not reaching our target. We told them this thing is very difficult because we are being supervised by Sassa, because Sassa doesn’t like anything concerning this Moneyline stuff. Sassa comes and tells the people not to take the EasyPay card, not to take SmartLife policies.”

Last year, Net 1 switched about one million beneficiaries from their Sassa cards to EasyPay Everywhere accounts, more than doubling the client base.

Getting the grant money away from Sassa

The Sassa cardholder confirmed that before he could apply for a loan, the Net 1 staff told him he had to change from a Sassa card to an EasyPay Everywhere card.

The process is described in an “EasyPay Everywhere Enrolment User Guide” that I have seen. The beneficiary provides a fingerprint, after which a message appears: “Transfer authorisation:

Confirm that you have granted permission that your social grant may be transferred to your new EasyPay Everywhere account. Click the “OK” button.”

The Sassa cardholder showed me photographs of the EasyPay Everywhere computer screen during his loan application, while he first set up his EasyPay Everywhere account.

After “OK” was clicked, the salesperson was prompted to scan the cardholder’s “Fica documents”.

Fica is the Financial Intelligence Centre Act. When you open a new bank account, the bank must scan your ID book and your proof of address among other documents. This is to help stop fraud.

In January, I asked Belamant: “When grant beneficiaries enroll for EasyPay Everywhere accounts, is a full Fica process always performed? For example, are their IDs and proof of address scanned etc?”

“Yes,” he said.

That is not true.

The cardholder’s photos showed that in the first Fica step, the computer prompted the Net 1 salesman: “You are not required to re-scan ID document, as it has been previously scanned.” The Sassa cardholder told me the only time his ID was scanned was when CPS enrolled him with Sassa. “They must have gotten my ID scan from the Sassa enrolment,” he said.

Next the computer prompted: “Does the client have a proof of residence document? Click Yes to scan or No to continue.” The salesperson clicked “No”.

“Fica document scanning process successfully completed,” Net 1’s computer concluded.

Every month thereafter, the Net 1 insider said, the entire Sassa grant will be sucked across to the new account as soon as it is paid. Smart Life, Moneyline and other Net 1 debit orders can be applied to the new account, and even if the courts accept Dlamini’s legal amendment banning debits from Sassa accounts, she will not be able to stop them.

Unfounded claims

This month, Belamant filed an affidavit to the Constitutional Court, which has to decide how to handle Sassa’s failure to make a plan for the payment of grants after CPS’s contract expires on March 31.

Belamant said: “I point out that both the National Consumer Tribunal and the Competition Commission have been called on to investigate such claims” – that CPS is sharing beneficiary information with the rest of Net 1 – “and properly rejected them as unfounded.”

In 2014, the National Credit Regulator claimed that CPS had breached the National Credit Act by sharing beneficiary information with Moneyline, among other complaints. The case was heard by the National Consumer Tribunal.

It found that CPS is not bound by the act and that, in any case, CPS had not shared beneficiary data with Moneyline. It based the latter finding on a KPMG report which “confirms [Moneyline] does not have access to social grant beneficiary accounts or information in the custody of Grindrod”.

In light of everything I had discovered, I was perplexed to read this. I wrote to Belamant again to ask for the KPMG report. “If the KPMG report is sound and credible,” I said, “the easiest way for you to debunk my story would be to share it.” He refused – three times.

The National Credit Regulator also refused and the tribunal said I had to file a formal Promotion of Access to Information Act request, which I did. I have not heard from it a month later.

A year ago, the Democratic Alliance complained to the Competition Commission. It wrote: “You are called upon to investigate the unfair advantage of Net 1, Grindrod Bank and all their subsidiaries, who through CPS have direct access to the social development database of between 16 and 19 million clients or beneficiaries. No other bank has this advantage.”

The commission investigated and concluded five months later: “The issues in the complaint do not raise any competition concerns.”

Grindrod retail head Chris Newland said he would not answer my questions but that the bank would issue a public statement this week.

Belamant insisted that in targeting social grant beneficiaries with financial products, Net 1 is on the side of angels. “Your help and thoughts are always appreciated,” he said in a recent email. “I am sure you are investigating all in the best interest of all people in RSA, poor or rich, individuals or companies, competitors or allies, etc.

“In a way, we are similar,” he said. “We strive at equality for all even if this leads to attacks on our vision, credibility or motivation. One, in its belief, must take the good with the bad, as long as one can justify its own actions (sic).”

 

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter to help it do more. Sign up for its newsletter to get more.

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