An Al Jazeera investigation revealed that key officials at Absa, Standard Bank, and Sasfin Bank helped criminals launder millions of dollars of dirty cash in exchange for regular bribes.
The revelation is part of Gold Mafia, a four-part investigation by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, which shows how gangs smuggle gold from Zimbabwe to launder vast amounts of money.
Al Jazeera’s undercover reporters, posing as Chinese criminals looking to launder unaccounted cash, recorded clandestine meetings with the Gold Mafia.
It showed how vast amounts of money are smuggled and cleaned through networks in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Dubai.
One of the key money launderers had well-placed employees in Absa, Standard Bank, and Sasfin Bank on his payroll to facilitate his activities.
Part of his activities included bribing Sasfin staff members to collude with Gold Leaf Tobacco to facilitate financial misconduct.
The employees helped Gold Leaf Tobacco launder around R3 billion in illicit cigarette cash and obscure the transactions to stay off the South African Reserve Bank and revenue service’s radar.
Investigative journalist Pauli van Wyk said the transactions moved money to destinations like Dubai, Mauritius, and Switzerland without paying taxes.
In August 2022, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) won a court bid to freeze Gold Leaf Tobacco’s and its directors’ assets.
SARS said Gold Leaf Tobacco owes up to R3 billion in back taxes, including interest and penalties payments. Gold Leaf Tobacco has denied SARS’s claims.
Sasfin CEO Michael Sassoon said they took the allegations extremely seriously and are committed to unearthing the truth.
He added that Gold Leaf Tobacco is no longer a client after they terminated the relationship in 2017 after following due process.
The alleged involvement of Gold Leaf Tobacco and Sasfin bank has been reported on extensively, but Al Jazeera’s investigation has also linked Absa and Standard Bank to money laundering.
It revealed how employees inside the two banks received bribes to perform fraudulent tasks on behalf of the money launderer.
One of the employees was a relationship manager at Absa who opened bank accounts in the name of people who were not present.
These accounts, using fake identities, were used to move money out of the country and launder money.
At Standard Bank, a senior manager in the compliance division was paid to ensure the money launderer received documentation to evade Reserve Bank scrutiny.
Absa commented on the allegations and said it had passed Al Jazeera’s findings on to its Forensic Investigative Unit.
Standard Bank told Al Jazeera it has a zero-tolerance stance on fraud and criminality, and would report and assist in any legal investigation.