Steinhoff came under the spotlight at a parliamentary hearing in which four committees explored the issue. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR
Steinhoff came under the spotlight at a parliamentary hearing in which four committees explored the issue. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR

It’s safe to say South Africans did not get their money’s worth from the scores of MPs who blustered their way through the Steinhoff parliamentary hearing this week. What an embarrassment the event proved to be.

With the outstanding exception of the DA’s Alf Lees and the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu, it was shockingly apparent that the MPs, many of them new to parliament, had made little or no preparations for the four-hour session.

By and large, they repeated the same questions their predecessors asked in January 2018 when parliament held its first Steinhoff hearing. It was just weeks after the accounting scandal ruptured the share price and threatened to do the same to the public’s confidence in financial markets.

The presentations by the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks, the so-called elite police unit, were particularly chilling

Parliament’s novel, although not unprecedented, decision to insert itself into the feeding frenzy around the Steinhoff implosion was greeted with scepticism in some quarters. The fear was it would be used as a whipping boy for white monopoly capital with the Steinhoff “villains” behind the accounting irregularities set to be presented as archetypal corporate executives.

As it happened, the early sessions proved to be a useful reminder that although the wheels of justice turn slowly, they do turn. Also useful was that regulators were called to account for their oversight role. But as the weeks turned to months and the months to years, hopes of any decisive action in the foreseeable future began to fade.

The presentations by the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks, the so-called elite police unit, were particularly chilling. It’s difficult not to imagine the alleged Steinhoff ringleader, former CEO Markus Jooste, celebrating the prospects of a life of freedom after each of their presentations.

The Hawks went as far as to suggest the only thing stopping them from making progress with their investigation was Steinhoff’s refusal to provide them with a copy of PWC’s 3,000-page forensic report. They had been given “access” to the report, which meant they could study it at PWC’s offices and use it to build their own case. Rather bizarrely, the Hawks seem to believe they should be allowed to get hold of the “privileged report” and make it their case.

The Hawks’ comments sparked a frenzy of charges of “obstruction” from the MPs who seemed unconcerned by the prospect of the report’s effectiveness in holding Jooste to account being undermined once handed over.

The MPs also seemed unpersuaded by the more level-headed NPA, which has also had “access” to the report, pointing out in support of Steinhoff chair Heather Sonn and CEO Louis du Preez that the PWC report is an accounting report and could only assist in bringing charges.

It may be that the few days’ notice they were given was not sufficient for the MPs to make anything but the most basic of preparations for the meeting. If so, the four committee chairs must reconsider their programming strategy. But given their questioning indicated that not even the most basic preparation had been done, it is likely a longer notice period might have made little difference.

It was bluster, faux indignation and grandstanding at an egregious level. The MPs, who get paid a tidy sum of money in addition to enviable perks, tossed out ill-considered remarks that seemed directed at securing media headlines more than justice. They baited Sonn and Du Preez with wholly inappropriate charges of arrogance and lack of concern for the workers and pensioners. Evidently none was aware that not only are Sonn and Du Preez not implicated in the collapse but both have spent the past 21 months doing more than anyone to secure the interests of workers and pensioners.

Sonn and Du Preez explained, calmly and with more patience than seemed humanly possible three hours into the grilling, that they had co-operated painstakingly with every regulator involved. They explained they faced two options, to save Steinhoff or liquidate it. They were intent on saving it; this would be a better option for all concerned, in particular workers and pensioners.

If parliament is to play the useful role it could in these sorts of matters, MPs must up their game.