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The Ramos touch

Will Maria Romos continue to display the 'Midas Touch' as she leaves government and joins Absa?

Read time 4min 20sec

Having Maria Ramos join the private sector is one of the best things to happen to South Africa this year.

Some may think that with her ANC roots, her move is a sell-out, but think about it a bit more. Sure, she rose to prominence as the director general of the National Treasury. Together, she and the minister, Trevor Manuel, spun financial gold. More than 10 years ago they charted a course for this country - one that brought us prosperity and gave government billions to redistribute to the disaffected citizens of South Africa.

Then she went to sort out the mess that was the parastatal, Transnet. Contrary to what you might have read in the press, Ramos' time there was not always rosy. A turnaround is a hard strategy to put in place, and during that time many senior managers were unhappy and felt Ramos was unduly harsh. Critics have also said it was easy to make the numbers look good when Ramos spun out the problem child, South African Airways.

The proof of how good her performance was at Transnet will only come to light in the next five years. But at least we can say that, unlike the crowd at Eskom, Ramos put many expansion projects on track that should result in the company keeping up with demand into the future.

Now it's time to look at the context of her departure. She has announced her resignation from government service at a time when those who served under former president Thabo Mbeki are, at times, being strung out to dry. She is leaving at a time when no one is sure whether or not the "new ANC" will follow the economic direction that she and Manuel helped to engineer.

In control

With Absa, Ramos is still in the business of money, and more importantly, she's still in the business of trying to lend money to poor people.

Ren'ee Bonorchis, editor at large, Business Day

What better way to stick to that course than to have the "old guard" now take its place at the helm of the private sector? Absa is the perfect place for Ramos to go. If she'd gone to Nampak or Anglo American or Barloworld, she wouldn't have been able to contribute as much to South Africa's economy as she can from the top seat at a bank. With Absa, Ramos is still in the business of money, and more importantly, she's still in the business of trying to lend money to poor people.

There is talk that Ramos was approached by Nedbank. It has been known for a while that Nedbank was looking for a successor for its chief, Tom Boardman. And when asked whether or not she'd been approached by Nedbank, Ramos did not deny it - she refused to answer the question.

But ironically, given the rumour that Ramos does not get along with Absa's chairperson, Gill Marcus, it was probably the thought of working with Marcus that swung Ramos in Absa's favour. Marcus and Ramos think the same way when it comes to the development of this country, and both of them no doubt want a bank like Absa to support small loans to poor people, to help housing developments in low cost areas and to keep banking fees down.

Under wraps

Ramos is not yet able to talk openly about her plans for Absa - she only officially takes over in March next year. But South Africa has fought for years to get its big banks to play a more developmental role in the economy and now we have that chance.

None of this is to say that Ramos is going to go out there and risk our deposits. On the one hand, deposits are always at risk. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to lend to low-income earners and make a tidy profit, even in this climate.

In the past six months, as the big four banks have all reported a decline in earnings, the companies involved in micro finance, such as Capitec and Blue Financial Services, have put out stellar figures and are better capitalised than the big banks. From South Africa to India and other third-world countries, it has been proven that lending to the poor makes good business sense if you have the guts and the know-how to do it. Ramos has both. If she can make it work at Absa, what a story it will be.

This country will have taken the most conservative Afrikaans bank, which, by the way, started out by making small loans to poor Afrikaans people back in the 1930s, and transformed it into a bank that is dedicated to uplifting poor black people 80 years later. If that's the way it turns out, then Ramos' move is pure genius.

Ren'ee Bonorchis is Business Day's editor at large.

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