Sat Dec 03 13:33:49 SAST 2016

Inside the ANC's war with FNB

First Rand Results
FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana
Image by: Robert Tshabalala

Firstrand CEO Sizwe Nxasana desperately tried to head off a showdown with the ANC over an advertising campaign by its subsidiary, FNB, featuring young South Africans criticising the government.

The Sunday Times can reveal that on Monday morning, just after the ANC Youth League issued a statement accusing FNB of "treason", Nxasana sent an SMS to Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga.

The minister had been called "brainless" by a youngster in one of the online clips.

In the SMS Nxasana wrote: "Good Morning Minister. I have instructed FNB to remove the video clips from their website this morning. I will investigate how and why the clips ended [up] on their website. Sincere apologies for this. Sizwe."

Motshekga's spokesman, Panyaza Lesufi, confirmed that she had received the SMS but declined to comment further, referring queries to the ANC.

Nxasana could not be reached for comment. His office referred all queries to FNB.

But Nxasana's swift apology did little to ease the anger directed at the bank.

On Friday he, along with FNB executives, publicly apologised after a tense meeting with ANC bosses at Luthuli House, the ANC's headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.

Insiders said that contrite FNB executives were hauled over the coals in the meeting, held behind closed doors.

The meeting was attended by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte, treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, economic transformation head Enoch Godongwana and party spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

FNB was represented by Nxasana, FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, FNB public-sector banking head Danny Zandamela and the bank's chief marketing officer, Bernice Samuels.

Nxasana attempted to explain the intentions behind the campaign and apologised once more for video clips that included criticism of the ANC and the government.

The clips that the ANC found to be "offensive" were posted on the bank's website and on YouTube.

The campaign featured young people commenting on their hopes for the country. In one of the online clips, a youngster says: "Stop voting for the same government in hopes for change - instead change your hopes to a government that has the same hopes as us."

Emotions ran high when Jordaan suggested that the ANC had "misunderstood" the campaign.

A furious ANC delegation accused Jordaan of "insulting" the government and "feeding into the opposition narrative" by portraying the party and government in a bad light.

The bank was accused of trying to turn "born frees" - those born after the first democratic election in 1994 - against the party.

An insider said a "bewildered" Jordaan took responsibility for the overall campaign but said he was not aware of some of the YouTube clip s.

The bank's executives said that the selection of videos posted on YouTube had not been made by senior management.

"[Jordaan] admitted that he signed off on the campaign but he didn't know some of the things ... the stuff that went to YouTube. He said when he signed off on the campaign he didn't think of the interpretation we were giving ... he was remorseful."

The ANC team reminded the bank's bosses that FNB held the lion's share of government accounts.

According to one insider, the bank's executives were shocked at the depth of the ANC's anger.

"Their perspective was that they understood that 70% of interviewees were positive about South Africa and everything else."

After the meeting, the ANC and FNB issued a joint statement: "The CEO of FirstRand, Mr Sizwe Nxasana, agreed that the research clippings that were posted online were regrettable, he apologised for the posting of the research clippings online. He then assured the meeting that this regrettable incident will not be repeated."

Shortly after the meeting, the financial news site Moneyweb reported that Jordaan would leave FNB this year.

Jordaan reacted with one word on Twitter: "speculative". He later tweeted: "I am not resigning as CEO of the most innovative bank in the world."

The bank issued a statement on Friday, via its corporate communications division, acknowledging the apology tendered to the ANC.

"We apologised for the posting of the research interview clippings online, however we are pleased that the ANC has expressed its support for the overall FNB 'You Can Help' campaign," said FNB spokesman Christine Burrows.

FNB said it would not be pulling the plug on the contentious TV campaign but had agreed to take "offensive" video clips off its website.

Mmusi Maimane, the DA's national spokesman, said the apology "has shown that it is acceptable to be bullied by the governing party, and it has shown the ANC that its bullying tactics work in suppressing critical voices".


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