The African Bank story is bizarre. And it invokes feelings ranging from initially being incredulous to downright anger. And more than a little sadness and bitterness. But not for all the reasons so nauseatingly reported to death in the press. No, for the simple reason that in all of this we seemed to have forgotten some of the cast in the immense soap opera who played the biggest role and yet at the end of it all are seemingly cast aside when it comes to understanding the consequences of this abject failure of a bank — the ordinary, everyday salaried staff.
What about Joe Shabalala, Gladys Dlamini, Shereen Moodly and Anton de Wet, all of whom have served this institution for a collective 43 years and who day in and day out have manned the hardest frontier of the business — the front-line desks in the branches where desperate customers approach every day in the hope of getting a very expensive loan. Has anyone bothered to check how they are feeling as the world collapses around them? Do we stop for a moment to think that for them and many thousands of their colleagues and families the events surrounding African Bank are as traumatic as for those investors who have lost heaps of money? I believe I can speak with some authority on this matter. From 2002-2006 I worked in African Bank in an executive management capacity. More recently, I consulted for seven months to Ellerines Holdings Limited, the beleaguered furniture arm of African Bank. And more painfully, I also lost money when the African Bank share price went from near nothing to dead crap in a flash on August 6/7.
So I follow this story closely. How can one not? It is better than most TV series at present. First the market crashes, then a curator is appointed, then the shares are suspended and then we get front-page headlines declaring that a former director, who now seems to be on a mission to drink himself to death, is burbling on about the poor and making rather disparaging remarks about their feelings. And the finger pointing continues. It’s the Reserve Banks fault. No its not, it’s the National Credit Regulator. Maybe it’s the investment community who are to blame? Nope, it’s piss-poor management. And so it drags on.
And in all of this the show must go on. Business as usual. Well this is where I have the problem. How on earth do you expect the branch staff and the collections staff in the call centres, and the back office clerks in the support teams and even middle management to merrily carry on with business while all around them the world is falling apart? These people have given their all to a business they believed in and relied on. Many people I came across in my time at African Bank are incredibly passionate about the business and take great pride in being able to offer their services to their clients. Before you jump up and down about the unscrupulous business model and how the bank deserves this crash, remember this — the general staff members who I am talking about do not make the decisions and policies. They simply perform a job they are paid to do. And they feed and educate their families from the proceeds, just like the rest of us.
There are thousands of very anxious, terrified members of staff who do not understand this story very well nor are they informed very well. But I bet you once the African Bank shares were suspended they are crystal clear that the future is uncertain, that there are no answers right now, and that all their hard work and dedication has actually amounted to very little because the bosses cocked this up — royally. Spare a thought among this wreckage for the true heroes of business. The little guys who man the front-line, take the bullets and then get shot in the back by their own when the sh*t hits the fan. They deserve better. F***k the rich they may say!