CHARMAIN NAIDOO: Make no mistake, Markus Jooste knew exactly what was wrong with Steinhoff
'It took five decades to build Steinhoff; like those dominoes on that Ladysmith town hall floor, it collapsed in two days in what has become South Africa’s largest corporate disaster'
Nothing happens at full strength, all at once. Dams don’t suddenly burst; cracks appear and deepen over time, eventually reaching a critical point when BOOM, the pressure of the water causes the wall to cave in.
Marriages don’t just end after the first spat. Nobody walks out of a relationship – romantic or work or friendship – at the first hint of trouble. There is a slow and steady build up of anger and mistrust and thin lines of dissent grow into deep ridges of despair and sadness before the eruption, and the walk away.
On August 14, 2017, a mountainside in Sierra Leone began an inexorable descent into the valley below, a mudslide that swallowed everything in its wake, that buried thousands and left an already fractured country – still reeling from the recently ended civil war – in a state of shock.
A conservation officer at the neighbouring Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary told me, in March this year, that there had been several early warning signs: smaller slides, sinkholes that swallowed up goats and dogs and, in one sad case, two small children.
The problem was that everything that had held the mountain in place – vegetation and rock formations – had made way for subsistence farming and the building of huts and shacks.
Over the years, heavy rains loosened the topsoil, washed away the mountain’s defence system and on that fateful day in August, the mountain fell into the valley. The warning signs had been ignored; an economic blindness had blinkered the indigent mountain dwellers to the potential consequences of their lifestyle. Big mistake.
When I was six, my sister Antonette came into the world, the fourth and last of my siblings born to my 42-year-old mother.
My middle aged mum found motherhood at what she used to call “an advanced age” challenging. And so, to help, my lovely dad conjured up all sorts of adventures to get his three other children out of the house.
One outing that has not only stayed with me, but has been instructive to my life, was the Domino Run adventure.
My lovely dad took us to a Rotarian fundraiser at the Ladysmith City hall where a visiting American Club had laid out a jungle of domino tiles across the entire room.
They stood upright, like soldiers at an inspection, in neat rows; a forest of tiles with spirals and curls in a myriad colours. It was mesmerising.
When the gathered crowd was quieted with a whistle, the mayor tugged on a string that released a small metal ball attached to a chain that knocked over the first tile.
And so the run began, a noisy clickety-clacking that reverberated around the room, leaving the watchers breathless, awed. What had taken a week to set up took mere minutes to become a tsunami of fallen tiles, lying defeated on the bare floor. Fallen.
Ever the teacher, my dad used this as instruction – hauling out what would become (as I grew up) a well-worn lesson: that it can take a lifetime to build up a reputation, and minutes to destroy it.
What my Dad called the knock-on effect quickly became known as the knick-knock effect in my family, the phrase coined by 4-year-old Shaun.
The consequences of one small thing are limitless; take your eye off the ball at your peril.
Ask Markus Jooste, the disgraced former CEO of retailer Steinhoff about this knick-knock phenomenon and he’ll probably tell you there’s no such thing. He’d be lying.
It took five decades to build Steinhoff; like those dominoes on that Ladysmith town hall floor, it collapsed in two days in what has become South Africa’s largest corporate disaster.
Markus Jooste, summonsed to explain his role in the fraud to parliament, insisted that he knew of no accounting irregularities.
He blamed the Deloitte, the auditing firm and a former partner Andreas Seifert for the uncertainty that, he claimed, caused the share price to tank.
It’s the “I didn’t know” excuse, not an appropriate responbse form the big boss.
I remember once being called to the then editor of the Sunday Times, Ken Owen’s office and asked to tell him how I’d been accosted (in a supermarket) by a man we’d written a negative story about. He had threatened to sue us. I was terrified.
I asked how he’d heard about my encounter and he shrugged. It’s my job to know; that’s why I get paid the big salary.
Like I said, everything starts out small and, without the right remedial attention, small problems grow into giant problems. And finally there’s a mudslide. Or the dam bursts. Or the marriage ends up in the divorce courts. Or a lot of people lose the hard earned money they invested in Steinhoff.
Jooste’s disingenuousness is mischievous at best, criminal at worst.
There’s a tipping point of no return; it’s a little like what is happening with climate change right now. It might be too late to correct the disastrous trajectory we’re on, headed for extinction.
But it wasn’t always so dire. There was a point at which we could have altered our fate: if we’d paid attention and started corrective action.
And so it is with Markus Jooste. Wasn’t it his job to know? To look for, find, and repair the cracks? At which point did he knock the silver metal ball that started the tsunami tile fall at Steinhoff?
Accountability. We demand it of elected officials.
We should demand it even more from captains of industry who have a fiduciary duty to those of us who invest with them. Claiming ignorance doesn’t cut it.