OPINION: Steinhoff a symptom of SA’s decay

If the massive meltdown at Steinhoff makes one thing clear, it is that ethical conduct is the necessary and essential ingredient for human development and success.

If not, things will come crashing down at some point.

The economic and social costs of what are described as “accounting irregularities” or what disgraced ex-CEO Marcus Jooste admits were “mistakes” have yet to fully unravel and be measured.

But to build a corporate structure – one that experts describe as being “as close to a Ponzi scheme as it could get” – in a country such as ours is unconscionable.

We have no reserves to weather the monumental implosion that was inevitable. Our people need every cent for investment and development purposes. For basic survival.

The nobility of any human struggle lies in the pursuit of moral values such as fairness, equality and justice for all. Our own struggle for liberation was exactly a fight against an illegitimate and unethical regime.

For this reason we have continued to call the ANC government to order for its inability to ensure ethical conduct as the core of its identity and practises.

Clearly, an administration that is unethical within has no authority to successfully eliminate unethical conduct in the rest of society, especially, in the ranks of the powerful and the rich.

Business has also never been completely trustworthy. Its pursuit of profit, very often, regardless of the human cost, is viewed with suspicion by the ordinary people who have little option but to sell their labour, as price takers. Meanwhile business, seemingly all powerful, determines the price of such labour.

This pattern was entrenched in the past by business’ co-operation with the colonial and apartheid regimes. That made business complicit in the oppression and gross abuses of the past. As such a deep distrust was ingrained over the years.

This distrust between ordinary people and business has never been reviewed or realigned post-1994. Instead it got worse as prices soared, salaries were kept as low as possible and the daily hardships of the working class and the poor in particular, became more pressing.

Even business’ involvement in the negotiated settlement that ushered in democracy was widely mistrusted and regarded as a calculated bid to retain large profits amassed during the preceding periods of colonialism and apartheid.

This negative narrative has never been helpful in building a democratic and equal South Africa. Whilst this does not mean all businesses have conducted themselves in this manner, it nonetheless remains a central aspect of the prevailing narrative about business.

This negative narrative is unhelpful for progress.

But things are made a lot worse by corporate scandals such as the one surrounding Steinhoff.

And that of course, comes on top of other really big ones such as the KPMG saga, the McKinsey drama, the Bell Pottinger debacle, the Multichoice issue, Oakbay, SAP and so the list of compromised mega corporations operating in this country this year goes on.

Together they have made South Africa’s massive problem of corruption far worse.

In a functional democracy we, as society, would be looking to government right about now to bring those implicated to book. Alas, we cannot. Government itself has long since succumbed to the lure of illicit gain. Instead of keeping guard against wholesale corruption, those in authority have joined the “big boys” in the private sector and become enablers and major partakers.

But quick gain made through dirty dealing always ends in bitterness and destruction. Unfortunately it is society that is left to bear the consequences of a decimated economy, downgrades, a weak rand and the obliteration of hope which is an unquantifiable cost.

While Steinhoff’s share price recovered somewhat yesterday as steps were taken to stabilise the faltering company, the PIC which holds a portion of government workers’ pensions has taken a big knock.

In March the Government Employee Pension Fund (GEPF) through the PIC reportedly owned about 10% of Steinhoff investments. While the GEPF has assured its more than 300000 beneficiaries that their money is safe, billions seem to have been wiped off the GEPF books within two weeks.

The losses of corporate scandals are not only monetary. The cost is to the role of business in building a better society. When business is viewed as selfish, caring only about making a quick buck and not the lives of people it affects directly or indirectly, its positive impact is viewed with suspicion, resisted and often dismissed.

We all need to understand the importance of ensuring that all within our control goes to establishing a better society, one that is conducive to the development and sustenance of our children.

For as long as we do not care about SA and seek to self-gratify as quickly as possible, we are doomed to spiral down, a society continually ravaged by the unscrupulous, be they in the public or private sector.

These business scandals are a loud and critical wakeup call about the state that we are in!

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