Opinionista Oliver Dickson 18 February 2021

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

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. DM

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All Comments 28

  • Why is it necessary to bring race and “whiteness” into it? We can all agree that the odious Marcus Jooste and his cohorts need to be brought to book and hopefully made both to pay the money back and spend many decades in a dark, dank cell, but no more – or no less than – than the very many crooks uncovered by not only the Zondo Commission but by investigative journalists who have had the courage to dig and delve into the dark belly of corruption that seems to be endemic in our country.

    Charge them all, bring them to book, but not because of their “whiteness” or “blackness”, whether they are ostensibly ANC, or wholly unaligned to conventional politics, but rather because of their proven records of criminality that impoverishes the whole of our society. Their is no such thing as a victimless crime – and all criminals must be brought to book.

      • Agreed, touche, why must race be brought into this matter, for example, Mr Zuma, Mr Panday. Crime is crime, guilty must pay. Unfortunately the more money you have, the more you can stall, that goes for all offenders no matter what race. Is this a socialist view point, a communist view point. Accused use dr, psychiatrists, social workers, anybody to stall the process, via their highly paid advocates or lawyers

    • Agreed Jon! Rich and powerful blacks also steal and avoid prosecution. Rich seems to be the problem.

      Q to author : how does your quest for a meritocracy square with BEE and affirmative action?

      As to Wiese, the author is grossly misstaken (potentially incompetently so?) Wiese was in this fraud right from the get-go, well past his armpits. Go an see who owns Southern View Finance and what its role was in fake asset sales, fake investment income, tax evasion and subsequent re-acquisition at inflated prices.

  • A good article, but unfortunately, by bringing in race, its impact and the real message has been reduced.

    Corruption and the inability of the state to effectively deal with it, are the issues, not race

  • Got nothing to do with whiteness. Get a life. Your comment reeks of racism. Look at the ratio of “white-collar crime” vs State corruption. I have no idea what that computes to but I would guess about 1:1000

  • ‘There’re none so blind as those who will not see’. Whiteness continues to matter disproportionately. Who gets to go to the most socially connected schools? Who gets mentoring from ‘whites’ already in influential positions? Who has the most backup of family resources? We are still a heavily racialised case of ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’.

    • Funny, I would say “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” , is much more an ANC mantra than anyone else…literally the simple definition of cadre deployment.

  • Continually playing the race card is what holds societies back . In every country , from a financial perspective , there are haves and have not’s and prominent reasons for the haves are – small family sizes that the parents work hard to educate , consistent hard work over many years to build competence in ones field , focus , character and integrity . It was only a few days ago that a well known politician spent many minutes ‘ white bashing ‘ and then remarkably concluded that vaccine suppliers must come to the party . The challenge for all of us is to wake up each day and put in the time to become a better person than we were yesterday. To get a feel for money disparity in South Africa a dipstick survey of purchasers of high end vehicles over the last five years will be illuminating , as would be the often promised , and long overdue lifestyle audits . ALL who are found to have ‘ill gotten gains ‘ should be jailed for a minimum of 20 years . Yes no one in the Steinhoff debacle has been jailed , which is no different to the Zondo commission where billions of tax payers money has been stolen .

  • Preach! No doubt, there’ll be a rash of defensiveness getting frothed up about you daring to mention race. “How dare you – don’t you know there’s BEE?” And, “We all know that corruption is a disease that only afflicts black politicians” (“in Africa,” nogal). For anyone else, we’ll rather bicker about whether it is “fraud” (because you know, unelected white males can’t be corrupt) or or some other semantic malady to obfuscate the obvious. Well done on a great article that picks at a particularly raw nerve!

  • That is not how it works . The cliche’ “It’s who you know” is still the most potent. Why,for example, is The UK government stuffed with Old Boys of the public schools and Oxbridge? And it’s not incompetence ,it’s naked greed , which we have seen is not particular to any skin pigmentation. Shame that South Africans are so race obsessed.

  • “The white, rich and ‘qualified’ can stop the wheels of justice from turning” – the black, rich and unqualified can also stop the wheels of justice from turning, think Ace, Zuma and other. I think the common denominator is “rich” – nothing to do with your skin colour. Money can keep you out of jail, no matter your skin colour. So can your “connectedness”.

  • I am not able to hide my whiteness so Oliver will probably discount my comments without reading them but here goes anyway
    I have been in corporate life for over 50 years and the companies I work for have always acted with total integrity and have moral compasses that point in the right direction
    Yes the Steinhoffs of this world are an embarrassment but not because they are white but because they are just bad
    Oliver who sounds like an intelligent person is making this terrible mistake of generalising to make his point
    But I suppose the article is written to get up ones nose so well done Oliver

    • That is my main gripe with current left version of identity politics: who says something matters more than what they are saying, whether its facts or experience, it all becomes meaningless. It is impossible to have any kind of decent debate with such a starting point of bad faith irrespective of facts.

  • I have a serious problem with the horribly racist slant Oliver Dickson takes in his article on Steinhof. Corruption in this country is not limited to race, creed or gender. It is a disease of pandemic proportions. The only difference between the state corruption and that of Jooste is that I could choose to invest with Joost and the fact that he mainly stole from the rich, where as I have no choice in giving my money to the state in the firm of tax and they steal from the poor, the uneducated and most vulnerable people. The one is fraud, the other is a crime against humanity. Both distasteful, evil and sick, but nothing to do with the colour of your skin. Racism is as distasteful.

  • As a victim of Marcus Jooste’s dishonesty many years ago at the beginning of his infamous career at Steinhoff, I understand your frustration. But to say that our white corporate “superheroes” are incompetent and corrupt and are escaping justice because of their whiteness and control of capital is nonsensical at best and racist at worst. It is the justice system that is failing us as is evidenced by the fact that it fails to bring the corrupt to book no matter what the race of the perpetrators. Apart from the counterproductive emphasis on race, I agree with the rest of your article.

  • Few thoughts here:

    1) While it might be tempting to equate government corruption with business corruption is it a false equivalence rolled out to obscure the greater role that our lawmakers play in setting the rules and actually creating the business landscape. While both are a crime, should be a crime and should be prosecuted, only government currently gets to make and then break their own rules without fear of consequence. Let government clean up its act and then apply itself to start prosecuting business that steps out of line.

    2) To explain corporate corruption on pure greed alone misses a large swathe of dubious activity that is underway currently simply in response to the slowly failing state in which we live. As in (1) above, the ANC government are making rules which suppress and frankly prejudice business activity in an increasingly harmful way. As directors of large companies compelled by law to act in the best interests of the company you represent and its shareholders, this presents a tidy conflict of interest. You are the CEO of a large corporation that is losing business increasingly to a corrupt tenderpreneur with government contacts. You face business closure, massive loss of value to shareholders, massive cash flow issues. You have no recourse in law due to the toxic system in place. I can see how in that environment, if the pressure you are under is existential in nature, you might start playing with your books and taxes and start looking to externalise your company’s assets and cash. The alternative is simply to curl up and die; the system that should help you fight the illegality that is crushing you is in tatters or aligned against you. The playing field is fatally flawed. The economy is crumbling around you. There comes a time when the laws compelling you to surrender and die as a business, for no reason other than endemic government corruption of the business landscape, must be brought under the microscope too and may themselves be found to be corrupt.

    3) The assumption that this is somehow based in white privilege or race in any way is so easy to disprove that you really should have spotted it earlier as a base prejudice not befitting a contributing author. I urge you to do better with your platform.

  • Why the race card – yet again? The only reason Jooste and company are not yet guests of the government, is the incapacity and incompetence of the law enforcement agencies, hollowed out by a thoroughly corrupt former leader and his enabling ruling party. It is certainly not “whiteness and capital” influence of the former Steinhoff Board that is preventing justice being served here. Business is certainly not squeaky clean, but the corruption going on in government is blatant and rampant! It is ripping off the tax payer, and perpetuating poverty and misery among the poor majority.

  • whiteness and capital, which are ubiquitous in South Africa, will do everything to evade accountability and mask incompetence.
    When you start an ‘opinion piece’ with this racist premise then what could be justifiable outrage about Jooste and co not being held accountable, a read I would support. With everything else going on in this country with fraud and greed in every nook and corner of those that are supposed to ‘lead’, I can only conclude that you were tasked with writing x amount of paragraphs to point out that not only black people are corrupt.
    It is abundantly clear that you find the good, bad, kind and dastardly amongst all people. Colour is irrelevant.
    Now focus on the bastards, regardless of what race they are and pursue justice for all.

  • Oliver. Stop a moment and refrain from othering”. Ask yourself if you have ever worked in a business or more importantly run one. If you have, you will know that it is a highly competitive world and no one gets to positions of leadership without being there on merit. We have some of the finest, yes mostly white at this stage, businessmen in the world here and we are amongst our country’s greatest assets in competing in a word market. Jooste and his accomplices are simply playing the long game like our dear friend Zuma. Hopefully they will be brought to book like any other South African.
    Look at all the things around you that you take for granted and then go to other post colonial African countries and see how much of this is in place after chasing white citizens out.
    We all want a better future, but divided we fall and united we stand – you are part of the problem and destroy hope for the poor

  • Greed, power and selfishness cut accross race, Mr. Dickson. These traits appear to be part of the human race. Why don’t you also bring the rest of Africa and the rest of the world, the Chinese, Brazilians and whoever else, into your story?
    And why don’t you support your statements with well-researched facts? Can you prove any of those with substantiated facts? Wake up and smell the roses. Your stance is so boring.

  • Astonishing that with our (SA history), Mr Dickson should nonetheless use his platform to say that whiteness is indicative of crime. Of course, he knew that doing so would stir up the hornet’s nest, and it did. So well done on that one Mr Dickson, but it’s cheap journalism, and it won’t sustain your ambitions in a career in journalism. Get over it.

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