The gatkruip reflex in South Africa

William Saunderson-Meyer on how our powerful crooks keep getting away with it


Genuflecting before SA’s rich and powerful

One hears all the time that a major cause of South Africa’s woes is the widespread lack of accountability. Offenders are simply not brought to justice.

But accountability is not only about the judicial process. Attitudes can be more important than laws and South Africans have a widespread, instinctual deference to the rich and the powerful.

While the gatkruip reflex of schlupping up to our supposed betters exists everywhere in the world, in the Western democracies there is a robust tradition of mockery and challenge that we seem to lack here. Admittedly, it is of course easier to be a contrarian when one lives in a meritocratic societies with a developed economy that offers mobility and choice aplenty.

In contrast, South Africa is the quintessential small town, where much depends on whom you know. If you piss off the local aristocracy, you can end up struggling to earn a living, which encourages the inclination to be agreeable and, perhaps, just a little subservient.

Hence our national religion of celebrity worship. We are in awe of public figures and, in order to placate these local gods, we readily genuflect at the altar of expediency. 

The lack of accountability that plagues SA is rooted in this reality. Legal loopholes have little to do with the immunity accorded to the movers and shakers, the duckers and divers.

SA’s constitution outlines with lucid elegance the compact that exists between the state and the people that it governs. These are not empty words, parchment promises that crumble upon exposure to the hurly-burly of politics. 

In fact, our courts have been exceptionally diligent in enforcing these rights and obligations. However, the courts can’t simply act of their own volition, for example to order an errant president to obey his oath of office. 

The judicial interventions against state capture and former president Jacob Zuma’s governance failures came in response to applications by citizen rights activists and the opposition parties. Most African National Congress parliamentarians and the party’s deployees in other institutions were cravenly compliant. 

Instead, they fawned over people that they knew were gangsters and thieves. These very same MPs who have now, post-Zuma, found their voices to decry corruption and incompetence, were the ones responsible for allowing state enterprises to fail, law enforcement to be compromised, and the prosecution authority to be subverted. 

Such kowtowing happens not only in politics. It is possibly worse in the commercial world because that is less subject to public scrutiny and there are fewer control mechanisms.

Professional self-regulation, as has been shown by the accountants and, to a slightly less odious degree, by the lawyers, is a myth. The interests of the guardians overlap widely with those they are supposed to be monitoring, so tacit complicity and outright bribery are inevitable.

For historic reasons of race, ethnic and gender privilege, corporate SA is — even two dozen years after the establishment of what was supposed to be a more inclusive society — a closed and incestuous world. They might screw the rest of us, but they sleep only with one another.

Hometown boytjie Markus Jooste, a scion of the Afrikaner business establishment, was reputedly one of Africa’s richest men, with a personal worth of R5.8bn. His rise and fall is a pertinent study on how celebrity dazzle blinds the audience to unpleasant realities that, in retrospect, seem obvious. 

Jooste ran a stable of 250 racehorses, played polo, and pretty much fulfilled every cliché about how the very rich behave. He was hailed in the local media as a business genius for building the Steinhoff retail group from modest beginnings to being a player in 30 countries with 90,000 employees, and an annual turnover of over R100bn. 

Unfortunately, for the many small investors affected, as with any other “magic” or confidence trick, all this depended on a suspension of disbelief. At the end of last year, it was discovered that Steinhoff’s financials had been cooked – actually had been stewing away for years – and there are massive amounts unaccounted for.

None of this happened overnight, nor did it happen without collusion or, at least, the deliberate blindness of those who didn’t want to rock the boat. That’s a vast number of people: auditors, Steinhoff’s management and executives, its banks, and country’s various financial regulatory bodies.

Jooste was invited to appear before Parliament’s to explain what caused the debacle. The standing committee was fierce: “Parliament cannot be a spectator … as the laws of the country, ethical conduct and workers' pensions go down the drain because of the recklessness and corruption of the super-rich.”

Jooste simply declined the invitation, but has since been sent another invitation, for 28 March. If he thumbs his nose at them a second time, a subpoena might follow. 

Or might not. As Scott Fitzgerald put in The Great Gatsby, “The very rich are different from you and me… They think, very deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are.”

And we ordinary, South African plebs? Yup, we agree.

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