First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Steinhoff must release the full PwC report if we are to...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Steinhoff must release the full PwC report if we are to believe the leopard has changed its spots

mm

Oliver Dickson is a political commentator and broadcaster, formerly hosting Late Night Talk on Radio 702. He is also a former competitive debater having ranked as the best debater in Africa at the African Championships.

The minutiae of transformation matter. In this case, the detail is in the PwC report. Refusal to release the full report appears to signal a desire on the part of Steinhoff to remain in murky territory.

In any effort to renew an organisation marred by the spectre of fraud and corruption, a complete exhibition of what went wrong and what it intends to eviscerate from its DNA becomes a necessary condition for that renewal. 

Steinhoff, in one of the many aspects of the ongoing “lawfare” between itself and other companies fraudulently lured into doing business with it, has refused to hand over the full version of the PwC report into the Steinhoff mess. All the company has done to date is to essentially reveal and share a high-level summary of the main findings. The argument it uses for not making the full report available is that, in law, it does not have a duty to do so.

Is that an acceptable defence? And, beyond that, is this clinging on to the full report a small matter that the public should not care about, or does it illuminate bigger issues of corporate actions and behaviour that are in the public interest?

First, I am bothered by the obsession of companies busted for wrongdoing to respond by hiding behind inconsequential legal veils. They are no different from politicians who evade accountability by the red herring of sub judice each time they’re asked to account publicly for their behaviour.

The law matters, but it is not all that matters. The King Code, for example, is an excellent guide to the importance of ethical leadership for corporate citizenship in South Africa. The premise of the code is that ethics matter and not just compliance with the letter of the law. Often ethical requirements are embedded within corporate law.

Sometimes, however, legislators do not make every ethical principle a legal imperative. In other words, there can be, on occasion, a gap between law and ethics. More pointedly, sometimes that which is legal is not necessarily ethical and moral. Moral imperatives which are often codified into ethical practices exist at a higher burden than legal expectations.

Where there is a gap between legal imperatives and ethical expectations, a good corporate citizen should do two things: comply with all the laws of the land and comply with ethical standards that matter to corporate citizenship, even where some of these are not justiciable.

And that is where the posture of the current leadership of Steinhoff shows us that the company is not serious about wiping the slate clean. Remember, Steinhoff is hoping not to collapse entirely, but essentially to drive a wedge between itself and the odious leadership of Markus Jooste. But the acid test of whether the current leadership is really committed to a different kind of corporate citizenship lies in precisely how committed it is to a value such as transparency. Transparency is critically important to accountability as well as to prove to stakeholders that there is no messy continuity of the fraudulent culture of the years before.

But if Steinhoff is serious about doing business differently now, then why is it not releasing the PwC report as a matter of good corporate citizenship even if the law does not require it to? Why should I, Joe Soap, trust that the high-level summary the company released is sufficient detail for me to understand whether the people who are left behind in the business can be trusted by the public and by all stakeholders with whom it wants to continue doing business?

The only rational inference to draw from Steinhoff’s refusal to share the full PwC report is that the company has not undergone fundamental leadership change. Instead, as is all too common with companies in massive trouble, it is hoping that because Markus Jooste, as a big, well-known public name, is gone, that the public and stakeholders will simply assume that all is now well.

That, I am afraid, is way too quick. Organisational cultures and norms do not change just because one executive has left. The minutiae of transformation matter. In this case, the detail is in the PwC report. Refusal to release the full report appears to signal a desire on the part of Steinhoff to remain in murky territory. Put bluntly, the Steinhoff leopard has not changed its ugly spots and we cannot impute that assumption with blind faith.

Should we care as members of the public? Is this of public interest? Yes and yes. The fundamental reason this is not trivial at all is that when we step away from all corruption in South Africa, the lack of accountability and oversight help sustain a culture of corruption. But when we break these concepts down further, and practically, it is often a lack of transparency that enables corruption to continue even when a famous name has left the building.

Quite literally, you can hide criminality in a report that never sees the light of day. The PwC report must be made available if Steinhoff is to be taken seriously about a new start.

Winning a legal argument does not fool anyone. Demonstrating deep commitment to ethical leadership is the real acid test. If Steinhoff wants to show it can be trusted, it should show every stakeholder what, truly, the PwC consists of in full. Hiding behind the law looks too much like proof of intention to not break from the criminal past. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

No Comments, yet

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted