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Opinionista

Markus Jooste’s Steinhoff was a horrific, high-profile example of corporate capture

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

Steinhoff is corporate South Africa’s handmaid to State Capture. They share the same DNA — people who knew better and could have done something chose silence.

Markus Jooste’s death by suicide on Thursday 21 March 2024 has sparked almost as much vitriol as the crimes he committed which led to the karmic noose inexorably tightening around his neck.

Much has been written about how his decision to take his own life let him escape the full reckoning that was his due for wreaking untold ruin to institutional and individual investors alike. That’s a topic for debate in itself, but what his suicide does do though is to force us to rethink the binary construct of good and evil.

It also reminds us of the enduring, and critical, importance of corporate activism.

There’s a tendency worldwide, not just in South Africa, to reduce everything to good or bad with no middle road: the bad guys in the Westerns wear the black hats and the good guys wear the white Stetsons.

It’s a comforting construct but it is ultimately self-defeating because it glosses over the truth, which is that evil lurks in all of us. And creating hyper-villains that we can blame and loathe is a distraction that stops us from looking within, understanding the seed of this and being able to root it out.

The world though is not locked into the Manichaean duality of good or evil — instead all of us find ourselves on some point on a scale between absolute good and absolute evil, sliding down towards evil as we become ensnared by forces that we ourselves have often unboxed, because doing the right thing and climbing back up towards good became increasingly difficult.

We speak of State Capture, but think little of corporate capture of which Jooste’s Steinhoff was the gold standard. Just as there is a tendency to divide everything up into good or bad, so too there is a propensity to somehow see white-collar crime as less odious, somehow being victimless, because there is no one left bleeding in the street after a mugging or a hit.

Jooste’s death shows us that there are consequences. There are those who will mourn him, his family, his friends, and there are those who his acts impoverished and even ruined. Not just money was lost, entire life savings would have vanished and, most of all, trust in the system because Jooste ultimately was allegedly a conman, a fraudster, and a criminal.

But he didn’t do this on his own and pretending that he did is as dangerous as all our delusions about good or bad or the consequences of crime. Jooste had help, the scope and scale of what he did was impossible for a single person to accomplish.

His death might have robbed the prosecution of their main accused, but there are many more people who deserve to be in the dock. For South Africa to heal and to evolve, we need to see that there are consequences for criminal acts, especially white-collar crimes because their consequences are just as devastating as contact crimes. There must be deterrence.

Corruption and wrongdoing grow because people do nothing. It is a process that is insidious because of the way it evolves.

We start by not knowing that something wrong is being done — or that we do not know that the act in itself is wrong. But when we do learn and we still do nothing, by turning a blind eye to it we tacitly give our approval. If we continue to do nothing, we enable wrongdoing.

Ultimately, we become complicit, colluding, and then becoming principal players in the process. That is the normal trajectory and we have seen it play out too many times in this country, but also across the world. In the old days of apartheid, great swathes of the white population colluded to keep the minority National Party regime in power despite growing international antipathy.

So too now in the face of the irrefutable evidence of the Zondo Commission or the lived realities of rolling blackouts and now water provision failure in Africa’s financial capital, we are faced with realities that did not occur overnight, but which were allowed to metastasise until they become existential threats.

We need to be activists, but we need to be honest and authentic about our activism: Steinhoff is corporate South Africa’s handmaid to State Capture. They share the same DNA — people who knew better and could have done something, chose silence.

It is precisely because of that that we are faced with even greater service delivery issues today than during the period Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was tasked to probe. The same will be true of Jooste’s death — corporate malfeasance has not ended.

There are consequences for wrongdoing — we do not often see them because of our fixation with seeing the courts hand down punitive sentences, but no one steals without having their peace of mind robbed from them or spending their ill-gotten gains on lawyers trying to evade their day in court. We need more than that though.

When Jooste ran out of runway, he chose an outcome that he must have thought was preferable to what lay ahead, but the law must still take its course on all those people who enabled him and who ultimately colluded with him, just as justice must be served on the architects, builders and yes, even the brick carriers of State Capture.

We need to commit as citizens of our country and as colleagues in companies and corporates to be activists, to stand up and step forward wherever we see wrongdoing, not wring our hands when the inevitable catastrophe explodes.

We have been given enough warning, we have lived through plenty of morality tales, the message is clear: if we all do the right thing when it’s a little thing, we won’t need to spend so much time trying to stop those who do the wrong thing — and all the people along the way that helped them do it. DM

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