JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s presidency said on Friday that a minister not a cabinet team had asked for a judicial inquiry into why banks cut ties with a company belonging to the Gupta family, conflicting messages from a government which appears increasingly divided.
On Thursday, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane had said the inter-ministerial team, set up by the cabinet in April and led by him, had cabinet backing for its proposal to set up such an inquiry to consider legal action against the banks.
That could trigger further turmoil after markets were rocked by a police investigation of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
South Africa’s Treasury is also in public rows with state-owned companies over their dealings with firms linked to the Guptas, who have been accused of holding undue sway over the President Jacob Zuma.
The statement from Zwane’s team said the banks that had closed Gupta-owned Oakbay Investments’ accounts were influenced by “innuendo and potentially reckless media statements”.
The prominent business family is accused by the opposition of being behind Zuma’s abrupt sacking of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December, a move that rattled investor confidence and triggered calls for Zuma’s resignation.
The Guptas have denied using their friendship with Zuma to influence his decisions, including on cabinet appointments, or to advance their business interests.
The president has acknowledged the Guptas are his friends but denies any improper behaviour based on that.
On Friday evening, presidency spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga said in a statement that the proposals by Zwane, which had drawn criticism from political commentators, were not the views of the inter-ministerial team, nor the cabinet.
Ngqulunga said the presidency regretted the confusion caused by Zwane’s statement, which “was issued in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the task team or Cabinet”.
As part of its recommendations, Zwane said his team also urged Zuma to set up a state bank and called for new banking licences to be issued to end the “oligopoly” in the industry.
He also said that although Gordhan was one of the cabinet team’s members, he did not take part in its meetings.
Asset manager Futuregrowth said earlier this week it had decided to stop lending money to six state-owned companies because of the swirling political uncertainty.
Gordhan said on Friday that Futuregrowth’s decision was a “very concerning development”.
Speaking to the SABC news broadcaster in China, where he has accompanied Zuma for a G20 meeting, Gordhan said “we in the Treasury have been warning both political figures and people who run some of our institutions to be careful ... and make sure your governance is right”.
“Don’t think that the world is not watching us in some of the things that are happening in some of these SOEs (state-run enterprises). Those people are not obliged to lend us money.”
Gordhan is embroiled in a separate investigation into whether he used a tax service unit to spy on other politicians - something he denies - and that has also put markets on edge about the fate of Africa’s most industrialised economy.
Several banks and companies had cut ties with Oakbay, including South Africa’s top four: Standard Bank, Nedbank, Barclays Africa’s Absa and First National Bank (FNB), part of FirstRand.
In April, Oakbay approached government departments including the presidency to express “deep disappointment” over the account closures, saying this made it “virtually impossible” to do business in South Africa.
A family spokesman for the Indian-born businessmen, who moved to South Africa in the early 1990s, said any inquiry would not change plans announced on Saturday for the Guptas to exit their South African businesses this year.
Although the Guptas’ relationship with Zuma has been a source of controversy for years, it burst into the open in March when senior political figures went public to say the family had exerted undue sway, including offering cabinet positions.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Louise Ireland