Short report

Steinhoff 'boytjie' just cost our pensioners 50 Nkandlas

08 December 2017 - 12:02
Markus Jooste, former CEO of Steinhoff.
Markus Jooste, former CEO of Steinhoff.
Image: Jeremy Glyn

Markus Jooste‚ until this week the CEO of Steinhoff‚ admits that he has “made some big mistakes”.

This is debatable. I’m not sure that people who are worth $400-million make mistakes‚ at least not the way you and I make mistakes. What the hyper-rich call “mistakes” are usually just decisions that make them fractionally less hyper-rich; the difference between buying that racehorse for Christmas and having to wait until Easter.

More importantly‚ I’m not sure that “mistake” is quite the right word to describe what might turn out to be the biggest fraud in South African history.

A mistake is where you accidentally forget to pick up the kids. When you pile up about R190-billion‚ douse it with petrol and set it on fire‚ well‚ that’s something else.

So far that something else is being called an “accounting irregularity”‚ which is what a mugging is called when it’s done by someone with an MBA.

Not surprisingly‚ many South Africans are demanding that stronger language be used‚ pointing out that the middle class and media‚ always so quick to unload both barrels at state corruption‚ tend to go easy on dirty corporates. White crooks‚ they claim‚ make “mistakes”‚ while black ones are “corrupt thieves”.

This tendency is real‚ and comes‚ I think‚ from the belief that state corruption and private-sector fraud are materially different things with dramatically different victims.

The state‚ they argue‚ is mandated to protect the poor‚ while corporations have always been open about the fact that their primary concern is to protect the interests of the rich‚ called “shareholders”. If you choose to hand your money to the casino of the markets then that’s on you‚ but people don’t have a choice when it comes to state corruption: if you refuse to give your money to the state‚ you get a criminal record.

That’s the theory. But the Steinhoff debacle has shown the flaws in that kind of thinking. Because‚ in this case‚ people have been hurt who didn’t have a choice.

A total of 1.2-million South Africans pay into the Government Employees Pension Fund. 400‚000 pensions are kept afloat by it. By yesterday‚ the GEPF had lost R12-billion thanks to Mr Jooste’s “mistake”. Not one of those 400‚000 pensioners had the choice not to invest with Steinhoff.

In a capitalist system‚ public and private money is inextricably linked: when some is dirty‚ it’s all dirty. To defend corporate corruption as somehow less harmful is a curious form of denial that helps nobody.

No‚ in this case‚ the figures are plain. If we are going to tally up monies lost to hardworking South Africans‚ whether by fraud‚ theft or “accounting irregularities”‚ we have to address an astonishing bottom line: Markus Jooste and his colleagues at Steinhoff just cost our pensioners 50 Nkandlas and 400 Brian Molefes.

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