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Markus Jooste, the shadow magician who couldn’t look into the mirror

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Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland.

It should have been apparent early on that Jooste might have been a magician, but he was unapologetically a shadow magician, only interested in his own enrichment.

On Human Rights Day Markus Jooste, the former CEO of Steinhoff International, took his own life. In the aftermath, there has been much debate about whether it was a selfish deed or whether Jooste deserves some sympathy for this final desperate act.  

Whatever the case may be, there was a feeling of inevitability to it.  

Starting in the furniture business, Jooste quickly turned into what many described as a “deal magician”. From a young age, he convinced others to make big deals and almost magically multiplied money on global stock exchanges and of course, for himself.  

By the time he was 55, Jooste was one of the richest people in Africa, with a reported wealth of almost $400-million. With an apparent disregard for the poverty surrounding him in South Africa, he shamelessly flaunted his obscene riches.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Steinhoff scandal

In Stellenbosch, the old guard whispered disapprovingly about him knocking down old houses to build “a monstrosity”. There were cars, a girlfriend kept in comfort, private jets, yachts and horse racing — lots and lots of horse racing.  At his beach house in Hermanus, which stretches over a whole block, he cut down all the old trees and replaced them with sprawling lawns — much to the disapproval of the locals.

It should have been apparent early on that Jooste might have been a magician, but he was unapologetically a shadow magician, only interested in his own enrichment.  

And then it all came crashing down.

Like all magic tricks, it turned out to be an illusion, based on deception.  

I am always interested in people (mostly men) with these hyperinflated egos who seem to believe that they can get away with anything and that rules don’t apply to them. Bill Clinton thought he could get away with blowjobs in the Oval Office and Donald Trump still can’t understand that there is a problem with a long list of things that would land ordinary people in jail for a long time. Closer to home, there is a long list of politicians and businessmen who have acted with impunity because they believed they could.

Psychologists say these people were usually bullied or mistreated as children. The childhood wounds become a motivating factor to hide their real or perceived personality flaws for the rest of their lives.

They crave power through positions of influence and wealth — neither of which they can ever have enough of, in their desperate desire to hide their true self.  Of course, inevitably at some point, someone will point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes and with the real man now exposed a huge personal crisis is triggered.  

I don’t know what childhood wounds Jooste carried, but my psychologist friends assure me that he would not only have feared jail, but also the court proceedings.  

In court, all his misdeeds would have been exposed and his personality would have been scrutinised by millions around the world.  The real Markus Jooste would have been laid bare for all to see.  This would have been too much for him to face.

Of course, he could have somewhat redeemed himself by admitting to the wrongs and apologising to those — including thousands of pensioners — whom his actions had hurt. That would have required a certain amount of self-reflection and admitting to himself what he had done — neither of which he seemed able to do.

For the past seven years, since the collapse of Steinhoff, he stayed out of the public eye, presumably hoping and believing that nothing would happen. Friends said that he maintained that he was innocent. Then, the net started to tighten with multimillion-rand fines and a warrant for his arrest on 22 March. The game was finally over.  

Jooste knew he was going to be forced to look in the mirror and be publicly exposed, and so he walked down to the sea and in dramatic fashion ended his life.

Jooste is now gone, but all the people who wanted to bask in the shine of his wealth and/or turned a blind eye to the corruption that should have been blatantly obvious have a lot to answer for.

They should all have had a good look at themselves in the mirror and ask: “What did I become because of greed?”

The words of Pope Francis seem particularly apt in this case: “There is a culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves. It makes us live in soap bubbles, which however lovely are also insubstantial.” DM

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  • Middle aged Mike says:

    “With an apparent disregard for the poverty surrounding him in South Africa, he shamelessly flaunted his obscene riches.”

    Sounds like a description of the authors old employers.

    • D Dog says:

      LOL! Didn’t notice that. Former ANC MP. Her remarks are a bit rich. Must be nice to be a cadre deployed to Ireland where there’s no load shedding and poverty surrounding you.

    • Grenville Wilson says:

      Interesting how indignant Melanie is about private sector corruption and writes about it, and despite the fact that these guys are eventually brought to book she totally ignores whats going on in the public sector.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    Thanks for the insightful article. One has to remark on the stark contrast: a greedy and corrupt businessman, oversight failure, exposure, and then the machinations of justice bringing him to book; contrast it with greedy and corrupt politicians/ politically connected businessmen, oversight and accountability failures, exposure, nothing happens (perhaps some whistleblowers get will get assassinated).

  • The Stoic, Cynic and Epicurean says:

    Yes Melanie, agreed. But it’s only when the Markus Joostes’ of our world are exposed is something done – and in this case only exposed when Steinhoff’s auditors refused to sign off the financials. He is one of many perverse CEO’s and businesspeople – the sensational news that he caused wrapped our minds around his actions and what would happen next. A great soapy of sorts. There are other Joostes floating around in businesses too – whether they be CEOs, MDs, directors, shareholders or lesser company beings. Now that Jooste is no more and the carnage he caused needs cleaning up, this grouping will continue until the next Jooste gets caught. And let’s not forget the auditing companies – they all appear to be corrupt, but supposedly the eyes and ears of shareholders. Just reading their reports tells you how they attempt to absolve themselves of blame should the bucket burst – but no, they hide their own shortcomings in wanting to retain clients. And when caught, some partner(s) takes the fall, the company gets a wrap on the knuckles, pay a token fine, promise to clean up and not do it again. It’s then business as usual once again, waiting for another Jooste to hit the news. Well, he kept us intrigued for awhile.

  • Joe Trainor Trainor says:

    Thanks Melanie. Excellent insight into how the mind of someone like Marcus Jooste was likely to work. The fact is that there will always be people like him around. Who are very smart and also completely without principles. Who will do their best to exploit loopholes to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. What we need is a robust legal process to examine what happened, take action against the guilty, and build safeguards to make it more and more difficult for this to happen again. I think SA is rather deficient in this area.

  • Joe Trainor Trainor says:

    Thanks Melanie. Excellent insight into how the mind of someone like Marcus Jooste was likely to work. The fact is that there will always be people like him around. Who are very smart and also completely without principles. Who will do their best to exploit loopholes to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. What we need is a robust legal process to examine what happened, take action against the guilty, and build safeguards to make it more and more difficult for this to happen again. I think SA is rather deficient in this area.

  • Geoff Woodruff says:

    Interesting article Melanie and having known Markus Jooste for a while, probably close to the truth. With your close proximity to the ANC did you not see similar behavior among certain members?I would love to see a similar article on the likes of Jacob Zuma and Ace Magashule. Are there any comparisons or excuses for their criminality.

  • Denise Smit says:

    She will not write anything on ANC corruption , not now before the election. The cadres are deployed

  • Denise Smit says:

    Why don’t you write about the Speaker

  • Gavin Brown says:

    Stick to politics and leave psychiatry t0 the experts ! Schadenfreude is not a virtue !

  • Sedick Davis says:

    Good article. Important to hold ourselves to account as a nation, even in death.
    Although only from a few keyboard fighters, it is though disconcerting that “what aboutism”emerges. This conflation if issues is unhelpful. Children are taught that 2 wrongs don’t make a right. Adults are expected to know this. Each malaise in our country must be thought of and handled on its own demerit. Without favour. We will succeed because there are many hard-working, ethical and driven, of all colours and creeds who are committed to success. To accelerate this, those of us who express ourselves publically, have a duty of care.

    • Willem Boshoff says:

      I guess you refer to a number of comments regarding political/state corruption. I argue that it is not a #whataboutism but is an important part of the analysis: the state undermining and having a generally adversarial relationship with the private sector is a paramount issue in South Africa. You can scan the social media spheres to see to what extent ANC-apologists use the like of Jooste to draw the fire away from state failures and corruption, and denigrate the private sector which is the only functioning economic arena in this country. In my humble opinion state corruption is orders of magnitude worse as we are all impacted by it and have no choice to opt out – looters getting funded at the point of a proverbial gun (laws). The Jooste issue is certainly deserving of analysis, but the conclusion absolutely need to point out that he did not get away with it, unlike the crooks populating the ANC and their business networks. The similarities and differences need to be highlighted.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      It’s not whataboutism its an expression of the expectation that law enforcement is not selective. That should be obvious.

  • Carl Metelerkamp says:

    You quite right, it’s really is and was all about egos and greed. When is enough enough?
    Steinhoff cost me and so many others a lot of money back then, they were the darlings of our investor advisors at the time

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