Thami Sokutu. Picture: SUPPLIED
Thami Sokutu. Picture: SUPPLIED

EVERY crumbling empire has its politically untouchable buffoon who ends up as the unwitting mascot of self-deluding decline. Rome had Caligula, who promoted his horse Incitatus to consul; North Korea had Kim Jong-il, who claimed he had written 1,500 books and could control the weather; the US has Donald Trump.

Numerous other tales suggest it’s a malady that extends to the corporate sector too. And in SA, you’d struggle to outdo the unsecured madness of the late Thami Sokutu, the “chief risk officer” of the collapsed African Bank Investments (Abil).

Now, it’s obvious that Sokutu had a crippling alcohol problem, so anything he said should be read in that context. But he was in charge of risk at an unsecured lender, which had thousands of investors, in the riskiest segment of a slowing market.

Easily the most unsettling passages of John Myburgh’s report into Abil’s demise revolve around Sokutu.

Myburgh says the first “bizarre issue” is whether Sokutu was ever MD of the bank.

Sokutu, in his evidence to Myburgh, testified that he’d been MD for 11 years, between 2002 and 2013.

This was news to CEO Leon Kirkinis, who testified that Sokutu “was not appointed MD”. Nor did anyone else remember him ever being MD.

It gets weirder.

Sokutu also testified that while he was Abil’s full-time chief risk officer, he was also employed by the department of environmental affairs for six years “for no remuneration”.

Again, nobody knew about it.

Worse: Sokutu had even been drinking before his interview with Myburgh. Asked if he had a drinking problem, Sokutu said: “I was drinking before this interview but I am not sure ... when you call it a problem, I do not know what the problem is.”

The point here isn’t to further humiliate the memory of a man who became untethered from reality. But the reality is that his presence accelerated the bank’s decline — and no-one did anything about it.

As Myburgh saw it: “For the whole period of 10 years that Sokutu had the title of chief risk officer, there was in effect no chief risk officer ... and this was the bank that needed an experienced, qualified person to occupy that position.”

It’s a bracing lesson for other CEOs of what can happen if you fail to notice burgeoning trauma in your employees’ lives.

Of course, Sokutu wasn’t alone among public figures in his unmooring from reality.

Forget Nathi Nhleko’s tongue-in-cheek contortions to make it seem that President Jacob Zuma’s swimming pool is the must-have accessory for any diligent fire chief, it’s the president who is doing a great job at satirising himself.

Take the ANC’s Gauteng conference where Zuma said: “When you talk about state capture, what do you mean?” Which is like Trump asking “what is hubris?” or Facebook racist Matthew Theunissen wanting to know “what is racism?”. Certainly, a number of people in treasury’s Church Square office would be able to give the president a refresher course on the concept of state capture.

This weekend, City Press reported the view of an unnamed senior government leader who said finance minister Pravin Gordhan needn’t fret about being arrested as it is “just paranoia on his part”.

Of course, Gordhan would be fully entitled to be paranoid, given that his boss has an unsettling habit of inexplicable late-night hiring-and-firing.

And, given that treasury itself came within an inch of being “captured” on December 11 last year, when David Des van Rooyen’s two Gupta-linked “advisers” marched into the office and began barking orders, he isn’t the only one in his department who would be justified in feeling that way.

You’d probably find the levels of paranoia in first-century Rome or 20th-century North Korea were also flashing red most of the time.

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