Jaundiced Eye: The rich hoodwink us plebs

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste. Picture: Moneyweb

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste. Picture: Moneyweb

We are in awe of the luminaries of public life and, to placate the local gods, we readily genuflect at the altar of expediency.

A major cause of South Africa’s woes is supposedly the widespread lack of accountability. Baddies are simply not punished.

But accountability is not only about judicial process. Attitudes sometimes can be more important than laws and South Africans have a widespread, instinctual deference to the rich and powerful.

In Western democracies there is a robust tradition of mockery and challenge that we seem to lack. It is easier, of course, to be a contrarian when one lives in meritocratic societies with developed economies that offer mobility.

In contrast, SA is the quintessential small town, where much depends on whom you know. If you piss off the local aristocracy, you can end up struggling to earn a living, which feeds the inclination to be agreeable.

Which explains our national religion of celebrity worship. We are in awe of the luminaries of public life and, to placate the local gods, we readily genuflect at the altar of expediency.

The lack of accountability that plagues SA is rooted in this attitude. The immunity accorded to the movers and shakers, the duckers and divers, has little to do with legal loopholes. SA’s constitution outlines the compact between the state and the people it governs. In fact, our courts have been exceptionally diligent in enforcing these rights and obligations.

However, judges can’t act of their own volition, for example, to order an errant president to obey his oath of office. The judicial rulings on state capture and former president Jacob Zuma’s governance failures came in response to applications by citizen rights activists and opposition parties. Most ANC parliamentarians were cravenly compliant.

Such bowing and scraping also happens in the commercial world. Hometown boytjie Markus Jooste, scion of the Afrikaner business establishment, was reputedly one of Africa’s richest men. His rise and fall shows how celebrity dazzle blinds the audience to unpleasant realities.

Jooste was hailed as a business genius for building the Steinhoff retail group from modest beginnings to being a player in 30 countries with 90 000 employees and an annual turnover of over R100 billion. Unfortunately, as with any other “magic” trick, this depended on a suspension of disbelief. At the end of last year, it was discovered that Steinhoff’s financials had been cooked and massive amounts unaccounted for.

None of this happened overnight, nor did it happen without collusion or, at least, the deliberate blindness of people who didn’t want to rock the boat. That’s a vast number: auditors, Steinhoff’s management and executives, its banks and various financial regulatory bodies.

Jooste was invited to appear before parliament to explain. The standing committee was fierce: “Parliament cannot be a spectator as the laws of the country, ethical conduct and workers’ pensions go down the drain because of the recklessness and corruption of the super-rich.”

Jooste simply declined the invitation, but has been sent another invitation for March 28. If he refuses again, a subpoena might be issued. Or might not. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: “The very rich are different from you and me … They think, very deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are.”

And we South African plebs? Yup, we agree.

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