"I do not think I did anything deliberately wrong". These words, spoken by former Steinhoff CFO Ben la Grange in parliament on Wednesday, are unlikely to provide much comfort to the disgraced company’s investors who have seen the value of their investment plunge by R200bn since the accounting scandal broke in December 2017.
They will have taken note of La Grange’s use of "deliberately". Later, when asked if he felt he’d been negligent, given the fraud that swept through the company, La Grange’s lawyer prevented him from answering "for legal reasons".
It would also have come as a shock to hear the man who in the five years before Steinhoff’s collapse was the proud holder of the title "chief financial officer" tasked with keeping an eye on the purse strings, wriggle as he tried to deflect the blame onto his former boss, Markus Jooste. There had been a "limited sharing of information" from Jooste, La Grange said.
Jooste is due to be grilled by parliament next week.
It’s worth asking, if La Grange was so reliant on information from his boss, what in fact was his day job? If, in fact, it was Jooste who handled the significant financial information (from Europe, at any rate), that in itself should be of interest to investigators. Of course, the lack of accountability should be no shock to anyone, going by what we know about the behaviour of the company’s erstwhile leaders so far.
FOR THOSE WHO LINK CORRUPTION WITH THE PUBLIC SECTOR, THIS WEEK HAS BEEN AN EYE-OPENER
Perhaps keen to demonstrate that life can be stranger than fiction, Steinhoff’s former chairman, Christo Wiese, is not only claiming ignorance of what happened under his watch, he is also suing the retailer for R59bn, recasting himself as a victim of the biggest corporate fraud in the country’s history.
For South Africans who tend to associate corruption and mismanagement with the public sector, this week has been an eye-opener. It started with some of SA’s largest asset managers finally displaying moral backbone and demanding an investigation into the Resilient group of property companies. Allegations of share manipulation have seen investors lose about R120bn in just six months.
In fact, were it not for the happenings at Steinhoff, Resilient would have been the corporate scandal of the year — not least because it sits on a sector that tends to attract a significant amount of money from retail investors.
The scale of the losses suffered by investors in Steinhoff and the Resilient group are indeed staggering. At just more than R300bn, that is equivalent to about 8% of SA’s entire economy.
No wonder ordinary South Africans, and investors, are disillusioned. Besides the loss in the share price, investors in Steinhoff have also been hit by the company’s decision to write down assets worth more than R200bn. In other words, Steinhoff’s assets had been heavily overvalued.
MPs were also left unimpressed by Steinhoff’s chair, Heather Sonn, with the leader of the finance committee, Yunus Carrim, describing her presentation as "wishy washy".
Yet, in the midst of all these disasters, there is hardly a peep from the regulators. The Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors says it is still waiting for audited financial statements from Steinhoff before it can take action against Deloitte, for example.
One small paragraph in the investors’ letter to Resilient, in which they demand that the company appoint outside investigators, hits the nub of the issue when they flag a lack of faith in the regulators’ ability to figure out what happened.
Nearly six months ago, the Financial Services Conduct Authority announced that it was looking into possible insider trading in the Resilient stock, but so far, all it has to say is that the investigations are "complex" and "ongoing".
Corporate SA and the integrity of our markets have taken a battering from the Steinhoff and Resilient scandals. But it has also exposed just how slack our regulators are. If we want our market to recover its lost glory, they have to seriously up their game.