Nwabisa Makunga: Steinhoff and our blind spot

A man phoned our newsroom last week to complain bitterly about the Steinhoff scandal. He was particularly irked because he believed the matter was handled with kid gloves by all those he viewed as instruments of social justice.

Leading the pack of culprits in his eyes was the media.

He complained that we had largely ignored the story.

I pointed out to him that the Steinhoff news was in fact the front page lead in this newspaper on that very day.

He then went on to vent about how private sector corruption generally received much more lenient treatment compared to public sector corruption.

Not just in the media, he said, but throughout the legal and social systems of accountability.

“Had the Steinhoff crooks been black, they would probably been in jail by now,” he said.

It is a narrative I am all too familiar with.

I found his attitude abrasive and dismissive, and therefore did not further engage with him. I should have. Beneath the hubris of his statements was a legitimate grievance that we all ought to engage with soberly.

The first is about the perceived inadequacy of the South African criminal justice system to deal proactively and appropriately with complex white collar crime on a larger scale.

Of course if you are a bookkeeper who has stolen a million bucks from your mid-sized employer, you are likely to be caught and jailed for it.

We have reported on many of those.

This is not what my caller was complaining about.

His issue, and that of many citizens, is that in this country giant corporate thieves are likely to be exposed and, to some degree, held accountable by foreign law enforcement rather than our own.

For example, it was German tax authorities which raided Steinhoff’s offices back in 2015 following initial allegations of accounting fraud.

It was also German prosecutors who began probing Steinhoff as claims grew that the company could be one giant pyramid scheme.

The point is that in this case, and many others that involve major economic players, our law enforcers are often caught sleeping.

The tragedy here is the reinforcement of inequality – the very idea of a separate brand of justice for the rich and powerful compared to the rest of us. The second point of my caller’s complaint is equally important.

It has dominated social discussions since the Steinhoff scandal broke out last week – the media’s coverage of it.

Here let me say that in my view, there are two types of people who have complained about the coverage of story.

The first are those whose narrative is predetermined, not necessarily based on facts and has nothing to do with the principle of transparency.

Theirs is a politically-inspired and relentless campaign to wholly discredit the media as a legitimate vehicle of information.

Doing so means the media cannot be trusted in its coverage of the rot in government.

The Steinhoff story therefore only presented them with another opportunity to do so.

Engaging with them is in my view a waste of everyone’s time.

My interest is in the second kind of critic, those who have raised legitimate concerns about the quality of coverage of the Steinhoff story and corporate corruption in general.

Here, it is not so much the prominence and volume of Steinhoff stories that is at issue – the story has made headlines across the board.

It is that by and large, the story has not been told comprehensively.

Its impact on ordinary South Africans has not been extensively explored and not all the crooks responsible for the collapse of this company have been adequately exposed in a similar fashion as, say, a Brian Molefe.

There may be several reasons for it.

The most popular critical narrative of the media around this is often that it is a result of some sinister, politically inspired plot by media owners to shield white corruption from the masses.

I will not speak on behalf of industry colleagues, suffice to say this has definitely not been my experience.

Further, some of my industry colleagues suggested that the problem was a lack of will from journalists. Perhaps it is, I do not know. My view is that much of it has to do with the capacity of financial reporting in newsrooms across the country.

Barring some pockets of excellence that exist in our industry, the ugly truth is that the ability to probe complex, financial and corporate scandals is not in abundance in newsrooms.

Unlike with government, corporate whistle-blowers are few and far between. And let’s be honest. Delving into the Frankfurt stock exchange to find dirt on Steinhoff and then unpacking what it means for an average South African teacher’s pension takes a lot more time and expertise than, say, going through a report by the public protector on yet another state corruption case.

For me this is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.

This year, perhaps more than any other, has exposed us to the prevalence of corporate graft, the politics that promote it and the extent of its impact on every one of us.

The Steinhoff saga poses some uncomfortable questions about how well we tell the South African story.

How we reflect on those questions demonstrates how committed we are to our craft.

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