Media freedom under threat as Standard Bank shuts down Sekunjalo accounts
Standard Bank South Africa (SBSA) has delivered a shocking blow to media freedom in the country by announcing the closure of the business bank accounts of Independent Media and 30 other companies in the Sekunjalo Group, effective from 21 August.
The Sekunjalo Group, founded by Dr Iqbal Surve in 1996, is a black-owned South African-based private equity firm that has grown from a seed capital of 20 000 USD to a current investment portfolio value of 3.5 – 4 billion USD. It employs around 8000 people in various sectors, including media, technology, health, fishing and renewable energy.
Independent Media, which is part of the Sekunjalo Group, owns several major news outlets around the country, such as the Cape Argus, Cape Times, Star, Daily News and IOL. The closure of its accounts puts the job security of an estimated 1600 media workers at risk.
The move by SBSA follows a Competition Appeal Court of SA ruling last week that upheld the decision taken by three banks to stop offering their services to Sekunjalo companies. The banks had appealed the Competition Tribunal’s ruling in September 2022 that there was evidence that they had engaged in anti-competitive behaviour when deciding to stop doing business with Sekunjalo.
SBSA’s decision to terminate the accounts was based on fear of reputational damage, following unfavourable media reports on the findings of the Mpati Commission of Inquiry’s Report into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).
The PIC had claimed that a R4.3 billion investment it made in AYO Technology Solutions Limited, a tech company in the Sekunjalo stable, was irregular and unlawful. However, Sekunjalo has denied any wrongdoing and challenged the PIC’s allegations in court.
The closure of Sekunjalo’s accounts has sparked outrage and condemnation from various quarters, including civil society groups, trade unions, political parties and media organisations. They have accused SBSA of abusing its power and undermining media freedom and diversity in South Africa.
They have also called on the government and the Reserve Bank to intervene and protect Sekunjalo from what they see as an orchestrated campaign to silence critical voices and marginalise black-owned businesses.