SOUTH African banks in Hong Kong, long operating under the weight of worldwide economic sanctions, are raising their profile and gearing up to position themselves for the post-sanction era. ABSA Finance Asia, formerly known as Trusban Finance Asia, is a subsidiary of the largest bank in South Africa, Amalgamated Banks of South Africa (ABSA). It has been in Hong Kong for 10 years, operating as a deposit-taking company. No longer satisfied with being a third-tier financial institution as economic activities take off between South Africa and East Asia, ABSA Finance has been pressing for an upgrade. ''We have told the Monetary Authority that we are not happy with the existing situation. I expect by the first quarter of next year we will be a restricted-licence bank,'' said managing director Louw Burger. If approved, ABSA will be the first South African bank to obtain a banking licence in Hong Kong. Also lining up for an upgrade is NedFinance (Asia), a subsidiary of Nedcor, the third-largest bank in South Africa. Previously, an upgrade was blocked by the global economic sanctions against South Africa protesting at its apartheid policy, and by its foreign debt position. ''In 1985, foreign banks, triggered by political considerations, demanded immediate repayment of all borrowings, creating a liquidity crunch in the country,'' Mr Burger said. Now, with the last financial arrangement for debt repayment just agreed, the country's economic engine is in top gear. Also tuning up are banks such as ABSA. But its role is more than that of an ordinary bank; it includes introducing Asians to the country's economic potential and match-making for potential business partners. ''Things are happening so fast that the South African Consulate cannot keep track,'' Mr Burger said. The bank has mapped out its Hong Kong plans, with China as the main target. Apart from strengthening its trade intermediation role between Asia and South Africa, providing trade finance to enterprises, ABSA Finance will also promote financial investment services. ''Our large stock and bond markets feature some of the companies with the best natural resources in the world,'' said general manager Kenneth Hughes. The lifting of economic sanctions has unleashed a spate of investment ventures. ''Through our network of clients in China, we will provide advisory services and structured finance to those South African companies. On the other hand, we will be the window through which companies here can invest in South Africa,'' Mr Hughes said. He said trade activities between South Africa and Asia in the first half of the year had increased by 50 to 100 per cent compared with the same period last year. South African industries planning to expand to Asia were mainly in mining, agriculture and food packaging, bringing to Southeast Asia the rich natural resources and refined techniques of South African manufacturing, he said. It was difficult to cover the whole of Asia from one base in Hong Kong, so ABSA was looking for another site in the region in which to set up. ''It might be Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, which will be the centre for Southeast Asia. Another one may be in Beijing or Shanghai covering the northern part of China,'' Mr Burger said. ABSA is a listed bank in South Africa with total assets of about 82.5 billion rand (about HK$190 billion). Its domestic banking and financial services are offered throughout South Africa via a comprehensive network of banking groups, namely Allied, United, TrusBank, Volkskas and Bankfin.