By Pinky Khoabane
Once in a while there emerge among us men and women of courage and bravery, people whose pursuit of truth and justice we all ought to be inspired by.
Some have their names etched in our history books; then there are those whose heroic efforts don’t quite make it that far. These men and women include the likes of Imraan Mukaddam, the man who brought the bread cartel to its knees when he helped uncover their years’ of manipulating the price of bread.
In the Equality Courts in the Western Cape and Gauteng, the mighty financial institution, First National Bank, will have to account for the years of discriminating against Black bondholders in the low cost housing market. FNB bought Saambou when it collapsed. Over several years, the black low cost housing clients were denied the benefits of interest rate cuts while their counterparts in the high-cost housing market benefited everytime there was a decrease. An interest rate decrease means a lot for everyone with a loan but it bears much more significance to the down trodden. These are people who live in South Africa’s townships. Their loans are a pittance compared to their fellow citizens in the affluent suburbs and yet, they had to bear the brunt of losses made by Saambou when it was found to have contravened the Usury Act.
Despite having paid well in excess of what was due to the bank given that much of their repayments were supposed to have been lowered during times of interest rate cuts, the bank would have no mercy if these clients, which they had ripped off, were in arrears. The bank would simply unleash the processes of recouping money owed and repossessions of the houses would follow.
Magdalena Pietersen, 68 years old, recalls vividly the day Emerald van Zyl, a financial investigative consultant, arrived at her door in 2002. “There had been many agents from the bank coming in-and-out of my house because they had put it up for sale. Emerald came in on one of those days and said he wanted to help me to save my house. I didn’t believe him and I was really sceptical.”
It was to be the first of three attempts to save Pietersen’s house from the bank. She says she had prayed often, asking God to assist her. She lived with her son and two brothers; one of them had cancer and the other was on a wheelchair.
That visit would pave a relationship that will see Pietersen and others take on FNB in the Equality Court in March 2017.
Pietersen has since lost her son and brothers. “First it was my son who passed away in February 2008. Then my brother in the wheelchair two months later. My brother with cancer went on 21 May 2011,” she said.
As if that wasnt enough, the bank hit her with another blow in 2013. She had filed a complaint with the bank that she had been overcharged as a result of the discriminatory practices of the bank, and had received a refund of R80 000 which was later overturned when she queried the amount. “I was devastated. Here I was thinking and knowing the bank said I had a balance of some R10 000 on the loan and suddenly because I had queried the refund and suddenly they came back and said they had made a mistake and reinstated the R80000. I thought I was going to die,” she explained.
Van Zyl says the bank’s calculation was incorrect and was supposed to be approximately R108000 according to his calculation. It is this amount that Pietersen queried. The bank then had a change of heart seemingly and explained the refund of R80000 as a ‘mistake’.
Pietersen still lives in her home, this time with a tenant who helps her pay the bond. She’s a pensioner and gets R1500 per month. She giggles when I ask her what the bond repayment is: “R1500,” she answers with more bouts of laughter. “How am I supposed to live?”
We await to see how the judge will rule on this case and see who laughs last in a tragic case of injustice and prejudice.