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The white, rich and ‘qualified’ can stop the wheels of justice from turning

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The white, rich and ‘qualified’ can stop the wheels of justice from turning
Wheels of justice -It is more than three years since the Steinhoff saga unfolded and not a single arrest has been made.
South Africa’s corporate superheroes are incompetent and their board seats,
executive positions and advisory roles have nothing to do with merit and everything to do
with the fact that whiteness and capital are self-fulfilling prophecies of prosperity.

 

The developments in the Steinhoff saga are once again a stark reminder that whiteness

and capital, which are ubiquitous in South Africa, will do everything to evade

accountability and mask incompetence.

On Monday, 15 February 2021, global audit firm Deloitte announced that it will spend

more than R1-billion to settle claims of aggrieved applicants in the Steinhoff heist.

Deloitte was the audit firm of Steinhoff during the time mastermind Markus Jooste cooked

the books, which led to the collapse of Steinhoff and the robbing of South African

pensioners, among other things.

Deloitte is paying the price of its sins because it failed to detect accounting fraud at

Steinhoff. It failed at the one thing it is not supposed to fail at – auditing. In other words,

it was (is?) incompetent.

In its statement, Deloitte said that while it would be spending more than R1-billion to

compensate those who relied on the output of its work when investing in and doing

business with Steinhoff, it in no way admits liability.

Steinhoff, which is facing more than 90 court cases amounting to more than R100-billion

– including two criminal cases opened at the Sandton and Stellenbosch police

stations under the Corrupt Activities Act related to theft, fraud, extortion and forgery,

among other things – has pushed for out-of-court settlements, but continues to punt the

idea that its offer to settle does not constitute an admission of guilt, liability or any wrongdoing.

Well, what does it constitute then?

Deloitte wasn’t the only incompetent actor in this spectacular corporate fraud

undertaking. So are those who were mandated with a fiduciary responsibility to detect

and avoid illegal and unethical practices – the board of Steinhoff, at the time.

Either the board and auditors are not incompetent – in which case, they knew about the

allegedly corrupt and fraudulent actions of Markus Jooste and Co and did absolutely

nothing about it (or perhaps even participated in it) – or they had no idea, in which case

they were incompetent. One of these two positions must be the case, and given they

don’t claim any wrongdoing, it must then be the case that they were incompetent.

By the way, it is more than three years later and not a single arrest has been made.

When corruption of this sort happens in the public sector, we become angry enough to

 

force the state to institute a grand commission of inquiry that receives around-the-clock

media coverage for all to hear the horrors of the criminal undertaking.

Yet, there has been radio silence on any investigative developments regarding Steinhoff

from the relevant regulators like, inter alia, the JSE, law enforcement like the Hawks,

the commercial crimes unit and the NPA.

Accountability on alleged corruption and fraud seems to be slow, silent and forgetful when

the perpetrators are white, rich and “qualified”.

The Steinhoff heist is even caught up in the controversy of semantics – corruption/fraud vs accounting irregularities.

This debate matters.

Corporate South Africa, which is still largely white, invests in branding itself as anything

but corrupt. This narrative wrongly entrenches the idea that only the state can be corrupt.

They do so by hiring overpriced crisis communications and PR firms that have incredibly

close relationships with journalists and opinion makers.

Why have we never really debated and unpacked the sheer incompetence of those who

were trained to and entrusted with spotting corruption, fraud and unethical practices?

Because if there is one thing that whiteness and capital hate more than being labelled

corrupt, it’s being labelled incompetent.

Being labelled incompetent will undo the entire fibre on which whiteness and capital is

built – merit. Giving the job to the guy who can best do the job.

That is the myth Steinhoff seeks to preserve.

The NPA, the Hawks and the justice system need to take off the kid gloves with which

they treat rich white men and start putting as much energy into chasing down corporate

corruption as they do State Capture. They might even realise that the two are more

interlinked than they thought.

According to a recent Stats SA study, white people constitute only 9% of the economically

active, yet make up about two-thirds of senior positions in corporate South Africa.

Black talent is continuously squeezed to the bottom quartile of the corporate ladder

because, when black people enter the corporate world, their white colleagues are the ones

receiving mentorship from the higher-ups, get put on career-defining accounts and cases,

and are ultimately thought of as better prepared for upward corporate mobility.

This element to the saga is important because the events surrounding Steinhoff and

Jooste are a microcosm of what the rest of corporate South Africa looks like.

This was, and is, the case at KPMG, McKinsey and various other bastions of white

corporate legacy in South Africa – and instead of just asking where are the auditors,

we should also ask where are the skilled and ethical white professionals?

When the Steinhoff scandal broke, many pundits rushed to blame the Steinhoff two-tier

board structure for the “lapse in oversight”, instead of pointing fingers at those who sat on

those boards.

Any and every piece of analysis was offered up – except for pointing out that South

Africa’s corporate superheroes are incompetent and that their board seats,

executive positions and advisory roles have nothing to do with merit and everything to do

with the fact that whiteness and capital are self-fulfilling prophecies of prosperity,

to the exclusion of black women and disadvantaged minority voices and talent.

The Steinhoff supervisory board at the time was one of the most impressive boards in SA

corporate history – it had three PhDs on it and was chaired by the Christo Wiese (the man

who lost out the most due to their incompetence). Wiese is a man whose entrepreneurial

journey is so decorated that I’m surprised it hasn’t yet been turned into a defining

moment-of-the-century blockbuster.

So what now?

The NPA, the Hawks and the justice system need to take off the kid gloves with which

they treat rich white men and start putting as much energy into chasing down corporate

corruption as they do State Capture. They might even realise that the two are more interlinked than they thought.

Arrests need to happen.

As society, we need to be as sceptical of white talent and capital as these corporations are of black talent.

The court of public opinion must not lose its grip on demanding accountability from corporations that try to PR and whitewash their way out of it.

As Tshepo Matseba recently tweeted, we must be vigilant against our own dangerous amnesia.