/ 7 September 2018

Supercool Jooste stays untouched

Who me? Markus Jooste
Authorities in southern Germany have indicted former Steinhoff chief executive Markus Jooste. (David Harrison/M&G)

When Steinhoff former chief executive Markus Jooste left Parliament on Wednesday after an unremarkable testimony, he appeared unruffled.

Despite sitting for three hours under the scrutiny of four different parliamentary committees, his pressed white shirt had no wrinkles. There was no sweat on his forehead and his only rush seemed to be to get away from the clicking cameras and throng of journalists who leaned towards him and stalked him as he made his exit.

READ MORE: How Markus Jooste plans to dodge Parliament’s tough questions

He travelled down the lift, with his flock of lawyers in tow, and made his way out of Parliament’s visitors’ exit where a white Lexus 4×4, and an armed bodyguard, were waiting to whisk him away.

It was a scenario far removed from the police nyala many South Africans hoped would await him.

When the Steinhoff travesty was exposed last year, questions about the power of the “Stellenbosch mafia” entered the public arena. International media house Bloomberg would claim that Steinhoff’s corruption “cracks open [the] Stellenbosch mafia”, while the Financial Mail would publish a black-and-white image of Jooste on its front page, with a headline inspired by the novel The Godfather that read: “The fall of a Stellenbosch don”.

Jooste had become a walking wanted poster — although the Hawks are yet to issue a warrant for his arrest — that showed what a corporate gangster looks like in South Africa.

But after 10 months of hiding away from public attention, Jooste coolly dismissed any knowledge that the global retail giant’s books had been cooked.

“I want to place on record that, when I left Steinhoff on December 4, I was not aware of any accounting irregularities that they referred to in the books of Steinhoff,” he said.

In his statement to Parliament, he attempted to pin much of the blame on his disgruntled former business partner, Andreas Seifert — who would blow the whistle on Steinhoff’s books to German tax authorities in 2015 — and on Deloitte for not signing off on the company’s financial results in 2017.

He admitted only that there was a “perception of accounting irregularities” at Steinhoff, but it boiled down to Seifert and the company’s decision not to release its unaudited results, which he claimed led to the crash last year. But he never once suggested the company could have crashed because it had lied about its income and assets in its financial statements.

PwC has already cited Steinhoff for overstating its income and assets value. It has made it clear there was a deliberate “pattern of transactions” that took place “over a number of years” across various classes of assets.

The share price collapse would cost the Government Employee Pension Fund R20-billion, with scant hope of recovering its losses.

Deloitte has been somewhat celebrated for refusing to sign off on Steinhoff’s books in 2017, but it gave Steinhoff the thumbs-up in 2015 and 2016, despite an ongoing German investigation into the company’s books.

The Dutch branch of Deloitte is being investigated by Dutch authorities and Deloitte SA is being investigated by the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors.

There are no heroes in the story of Steinhoff’s collapse. Instead, there is a justice system that hasn’t managed to arrest anyone associated with the scandal in South Africa and there is a Parliament that can sometimes only produce half-truths as it fails to strike fear in those who undermine the law.

If Jooste continues to evade justice, then he may go down as the man at the centre of the biggest corporate scandal in South Africa who lied and defrauded people around the world but escaped criminal sanction.