Markus Jooste. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Markus Jooste. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

After the political grandstanding at this week’s Steinhoff presentation in parliament one thing was distressingly clear: disgraced former CEO Markus Jooste is unlikely to be behind bars anytime soon.

And we have a hollowed-out inept National Prosecuting Authority to thank for that. It would be comforting to think the NPA’s new investigative unit with assistance from some of the eight individuals named in PwC’s independent investigation might pull off the impossible. But it would be unrealistic.

Big as it is, Steinhoff cannot be, and should not be, the new unit’s number one priority.

On Tuesday, it was disclosed that the Hawks had spent the last 12 months focusing on one of the allegedly fraudulent transactions. “We were almost on the verge of securing the attendance of the person, then realised there was more than one transaction,” said Hawks boss Lt-Gen Godfrey Lebeya by way of explanation for the total lack of progress.

It’s hard not to imagine that, wherever he is holed up — Hermanus, Stellenbosch, Namibia — Jooste was celebrating after studying the joint presentation by the NPA and Hawks.  It described a ham-fisted process that may end in Jooste not even suffering the inconvenience of having his assets frozen.

At this stage the greatest threat to the prospect of holding Jooste to account is the NPA and the possibility that, in a replay of the botched Estina dairy case, it might rush to charge him before the May election. Jooste, who has already demonstrated he has the necessary resources to keep an army of lawyers on call, would make much use of such a misstep.

The message is, if you’re going to do crime, financial crime is the way to go. And the more sophisticated the better.

The good news for ANC MP Dikeledi Mahlangu, who said if Jooste was black the prosecuting authorities would have taken the investigation more seriously and would have arrested him by now, is that the authorities’ incapacity is so profound it defies racial prescription.

As public service and administration committee chairperson Joe Maswanganyi later reminded the meeting, all the parties allegedly involved in the VBS Bank heist are also “walking freely” and with access to their assets.

After that presentation, anyone contemplating a life of corporate crime might reasonably have decided, “What the heck, I’ll never be caught”.

It would be wrong to castigate the current NPA without pointing out the history of limited success our national prosecutors have had pursuing financial criminals. The message is, if you’re going to do crime, financial crime is the way to go. And the more sophisticated the better.

This is a grim perspective, not just for the thousands of investors who are today considerably poorer as a result of the complex accounting trickery at Steinhoff, but for all of us who rely on a reasonable level of respect for laws and, in this case, financial regulations.

Much is said about integrity and ethics but the reality is that the most effective way of ensuring the necessary respect is robust oversight and consequences.

For Jooste and his gang of seven the consequences delivered by the various entities are of little significance. At this stage there’s not much that the Independent Regulatory Body for Auditors, the JSE, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority or the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission could do that would much affect Jooste’s life.

In the absence of an effective prosecution authority, the most the regulators can offer is a ramping up of regulations. Essentially this means that those who actually do respect laws and regulations are being punished for Jooste’s alleged wrongdoing. 

Meanwhile, the best that Steinhoff shareholders can hope for is that chairman Heather Sonn and her colleagues have some success in pursuing claims against Jooste. To the extent that they are successful Jooste will have fewer resources to fund a triple-A legal team.