This is how democracy works, Steinhoff. Get used to it
The embattled company's team was visibly disconcerted by its introduction to parliament, South African-style.
It was just over an hour into the day’s proceedings when the starkness of the cultural differences became apparent. A few metres and a world of difference separated the Steinhoff International team from the parliamentarians on the two sides of the aisle in the elegant Old Assembly Chamber. Steinhoff represented the uni-focus of business – one primary constituency, the shareholder, and one primary objective, making profit. They were facing a varied collection of MPs who were representing the diversity that is the South African citizenry with its multiplicity of objectives.
Steinhoff’s recently appointed chairperson Heather Sonn was the first up, setting the scene; they did want to co-operate but at this stage weren’t sure what had gone wrong or whether it could have been prevented. Recently appointed commercial director, and former lawyer, Louis de Preez committed the company to “uncovering the truth and fixing what was wrong”.They were followed by a subdued Christo Wiese who hadn’t prepared anything but spoke with the sort of eloquence that had helped him mesmerise boards and banks over the decades. JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King used her turn to try and dial down the belief that local regulators were somehow responsible or should have been able to prevent it.
It all ran with the businesslike efficiency and precision you’d expect of, well, business.
Then it was over to the MPs. Within minutes, the restrained sophistication of business was replaced by something considerably more raucous and far less precise – democracy. For 20, possibly 30 minutes MPs from as many as seven different parties bickered about how much time they should be given to question the visitors.
It was grandstanding on a grand scale. Fresh from their televised victories over venal politicians and corrupt SOE executives, here was an opportunity for a few private-sector scalps, an opportunity to show the country it wasn’t just politicians and state employees who were corrupt; the private sector was at it too.
Each MP spoke with his or her constituency in mind. ANC MP Yunus Carrim, who was chair of one of the three committees leading the parliamentary charge, struggled valiantly to persuade them that time was of the essence and this was merely day one of what would be a very long process. In true democratic time-absorbing fashion, every MP was given precious minutes to bicker about the time restriction. There was no consensus.The Steinhoff team looked on in what could only be described as restrained bewilderment. What had they got themselves into? As for Wiese, you could almost hear him thinking that if his board meetings had been run like this he would never have become a hugely wealthy and successful businessman. And would never have had the opportunity to pour R50-billion into something akin to a black hole apparently controlled entirely by one remarkably devious man, Markus Jooste.
We may never know if there was any democracy-style bickering at Steinhoff board meetings, but it’s probably safe to assume any was speedily dealt with. It’s also safe to assume Wiese might still be in Upington managing one or two stores if he ran business meetings like a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting.On day one of what looks set to be a long-drawn-out process, the Steinhoff team acquitted itself reasonably well. It was by no means certain they would pitch up. Given the investigations by regulators across the globe and the growing list of court cases, a word said out of turn in this public forum could cost them dearly. But for them not to appear would have been a dangerous slight in a country that is almost at war with its leaders. Unlike the CEOs of the big three US auto companies who flew their private luxury jets to Washington to ask for taxpayer bailout money in 2008, the Steinhoff team seemed determined not to cause unnecessary offence. They hadn’t bulked up with an intimidating army of lawyers and corporate advisers and, while they provided almost no information, they didn’t refuse to answer any questions – although they came remarkably close when the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu pushed to know when exactly the audit committee twigged that something might be wrong.And well done to whoever on the board’s nomination committee decided Heather Sonn would be the right person to inherit her father Franklin’s board appointment after his retirement in 201.
Without Sonn the Steinhoff team did have a uni-tribal look about it – white, male, Afrikaner; the sort of look that must make it easy to pursue one objective for one constituency and not notice the warnings signs.
As the long day’s proceedings came to an inconclusive end, Carrim and his co-chair Themba Godi promised that the parliamentarians would become more focused and effective as they became more familiar with the murky Steinhoff story in the weeks and months ahead.
This raised the giddy prospect of a more businesslike parliament helping to drive more democratic accountability by the business community.