This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
South Africa has a grimy history of companies raiding their pension funds, and the fear is that two recent court cases, which found in favour of the pension fund trustees, will do little to curb the practice.
The first case, involving two pensioners against the Tongaat Hulett Pension Fund, wound its way through the lower courts to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), only to be defeated on what the vanquished pensioners regard as a poor understanding of the law by the judges. They were denied an opportunity for review at Constitutional Court (ConCourt).
The second case involved Rosemary Hunter, former deputy pension fund registrar at the Financial Services Board (now called the Financial Services Conduct Authority), against the FSB over its attempts to deregister funds that still had assets owing to former employees. She too lost her case in the ConCourt, principally on the basis that the court assumed the FSB had competent and responsible people running it, and had investigated a few funds (less than 20%) that had been deregistered as part of the FSB’s cancellations project.
Both cases ended up in defeat at the ConCourt, with no further avenues of legal redress available to the applicants. But the findings of the judges in favour of the pension fund trustees and regulator should be a cause for concern for employees, past and current, with claims to a share of actuarial surpluses or other assets sitting in pension funds of which they are members.
The Tongaat Hulett pensioners, in a recent missive to the 54 fellow pensioners that supported their legal fight, spell out several false or erroneous findings they believe were made by the judges who heard their case.
They claimed in their court papers that the trustees were able to deceive the courts by mislabelling R1.43 billion in contingency reserves as “excess assets”, a term not found in the Pension Funds Act. “Assets in contingency reserve accounts” – a term that isdefined in the act – should be shared among the members when they are no longer needed to provide for contingent liabilities. It is at this point they become an actuarial surplus. The pensioners argued that by renaming these assets as something else, the trustees, who by law must balance the interests of employees and the company, were able to divert funds away from the members to the company.