The African National Congress (ANC) and some of its alliance partners launched a blistering attack on First National Bank (FNB) on Monday, accusing it of treason and undermining democracy and the government.
This is not the first time FNB has faced criticism from the ruling party for its advertising. A multimillion-rand campaign was pulled in 2007, in which the bank planned to urge the public to write to then president Thabo Mbeki to demand that the government make crime its top priority.
It is not the only bank to have faced censure from the ANC. Last year, Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza was taken to task for questioning the quality of SA’s political leadership in the bank’s annual report.
FNB pulled some of its advertisements on Monday as the volley of criticism from the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and both organisations’ youth structures mounted.
The FNB ad campaign consisted of a series of videos titled "FNB: You Can Help". In the videos, children in school uniforms called for, among other things, an end to corruption and people voting for the "same government" while hoping for change.
The ANC and its partners interpreted this as an attack on the party and the government.
"The ANC is appalled by the FNB ‘advertisements’ in which the ANC, its leadership and government (are) under attack on a commercial masqueraded as youth views," the party’s spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, said on Monday.
"What is of concern to the ANC is that the advert content is an undisguised political statement that makes random and untested accusations against our government in the name of discourse.
"FNB must desist from using school kids to make political statements in a manner that is disrespectful to elders and that disregard sacrifices made in the 18 years of democratic government."
Mr Mthembu continued to say that good corporate citizenry required "responsible and accountable conduct" from the business sector. Hiding behind the "innocent faces of young people" would not assist in achieving co-operative solutions to national problems.
Following the salvo of attacks some of the advertisements were removed from the bank’s website.
FNB said in a statement on Monday that the intention of the advertisements was "not to criticise, but to galvanise the nation into helping to build a stronger, unified values-based nation". The children’s statements were unscripted, captured live and uncensored on camera.
"We thought it would be advisable to remove the clips for the time being in the best interests of the children until the misunderstanding is resolved," the bank said.
"The campaign featuring the TV advertisement, the outdoor messaging and the ‘You Can Help’ blog will continue."
The ANC Youth League called FNB’s campaign "an obviously lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring". The youth league said children were used in advertisements to make "unproven claims" and drive an "undoubtedly treasonous agenda".
The ANC Women’s League called on FNB to apologise for the "offensive and politically biased advertisements". "It is concerning that a financial institution holds such strong political views and it is clear from the content of these adverts that FNB has a distinct antigovernment stance," the Women’s League said in a statement.
The SACP said it was "incensed" by the advertisements, which represented the latest in "regime change agitation". They were "highly irresponsible, reckless and unbecoming of any institution calling itself a bank", SACP spokesman Malesela Maleka said in a statement.
"It is even more disgusting that FNB has sought to use children as mercenaries in their war against (the government) ."
Democratic Alliance national spokesman Mmusi Maimane said on Monday that the advertisements highlighted the fact that SA faced "massive challenges". The ANC was threatened by a schoolgirl’s references to greed, corruption, crime and illiteracy.
"It is, in fact, patriotic for a company to have spent money to motivate South Africans to work together and achieve great things — notwithstanding the ANC Youth League’s even more extreme accusation that the commercial is treasonous," Mr Maimane said.
"The ANC’s objections to the commercial are reminiscent of the apartheid government’s approach to dissent.
"During apartheid, whenever opinions were raised that questioned the actions of government, those opinions would be branded as treasonous."