White privilege rears its ugly head once again- Steinhoff a case in point


Ayanda Mdluli

Just when you think you can have a little faith and hope that change is truly imminent in our economic and media landscape in SA, the reality of our structurally entrenched racial dynamics serve as a stark reminder of your place as a black man in SA through the phenomenon of white privilege.

The Steinhoff saga is just another example of how white men in corporate SA are protected by mainstream media entities.  

This week, furniture retail giant, Steinhoff has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The company’s CEO, Markus Jooste is being investigated by German authorities for what the South African media is referring to as “accounting irregularities”. Since the news of these “accounting irregularities” came out, the company lost more than half of its value, with the share price plummeting 65% – a seven year low, losing half of its R180 billion value in SA.

Steinhoff, under the leadership of Jooste, is said to have deliberately withheld important information from investors for about R13.5 billion worth of transactions with a related company, despite laws stating that it is required to divulge financial dealings with related companies.

Furthermore, the company, under the same CEO has been receiving shockingly low tax rates despite it being a multinational conglomerate operating not only in South Africa, but in many developed markets around the world such as the US, Germany, the UK and Australia.

Reuters, quoting various analysts suggests that it has long been questioned how Steinhoff managed to achieve such low tax rates.

“It’s tax rate has averaged just 12 % over the past five years – half the headline corporate tax rate in its main market and less than half the rates paid by listed competitors including Frances Casino, Germany’s Metro AG and South Africa’s Woolworth’s,” reports the wire service.  

Jooste has since unceremoniously resigned, along with another tainted CEO, Ben la Grange of Steinhoff African Retail (STAR) one of Steinhoff subsidiaries which has a significant stake in Shoprite. It is to be confirmed if these R13.5 billion financial transactions were between these two entities, however what is clear is that the narrative and the way the story has been developed reeks of white privilege.

 Had this been a black CEO in South Africa, the headlines would be very different.

Calling a spade a spade

If a spade was truly a spade, it would have been reported that Jooste is being investigated for accounting and tax fraud, theft and corruption where investors and tax authorities are alleged to have been swindled out of more than R13.5 billion. The company, under Jooste has manipulated the system, stretching financial and accounting rules in order to pay less tax and channel the money through other entities, further defrauding its investor base.

 Had this been a black CEO in South Africa, the headlines would be very different.

Just earlier this week, the CEO of the Black Business Council, Danisa Baloyi was reported to have been suspended pending an investigation into fraud and theft allegations over a missing R5 million donation. Many headlines explicitly stated that she was fired for fraud and theft. Year in and year out, whenever a black person is involved in shady activities in leadership positions they are labelled as fraudsters and thieves while their white counterparts are protected with kid glove reporting tactics. Last year, Serge Belamant, the former CEO of Net 1 UEPS lied and said he was duped into believing that he had a Phd.

He was paraded by mainstream media as a victim of a scam. His African counterparts were not so lucky as black people in similar situations are labelled as cynical fraudsters with fake qualifications.

When Belamant left the company, he received a pay out of R263 million plus an additional multimillion dollar severance package that also paid him more than R660 000 a month for year.

While we are still on it, it should also be important to note that the likes of Chris Hart did not even have a post matric economics qualification yet served as the head of economics for Standard Bank. In the media, he was one of the most quoted economists on platforms such as Business Report, Business Day, SABC, eNCA, Power FM, 702 and Fin24. He also had a very poor academic record in an entirely different field but was none the less referred to as an economist.  

A different set of rules

This just goes to show that white men in the corporate landscape play by a different set of rules compared to the rest of us. These set of rules are constructed through a white supremacist lens to ensure that white executives are protected from being demonised or painted as corrupt.

While highly skilled black executives are often discriminated against on a daily basis, white men, who ascended to positions of power through white privilege are still protected by institutions that claim to be the custodians of our democratic values and advocates of Nelson Mandela’s so called rainbow nation.

Many of these companies that lose hundreds of millions of rands and dollars to inept white CEOs are answerable to their shareholders. Just like how our parastatals are answerable to government and the tax payers, yet the dynamics of the reporting is skewed towards protecting white interests. Black executives should no longer tolerate being discriminated against by white-owned media entities. Furthermore, highly skilled and black people in corporate SA should understand that as long as they are black and highly skilled they will always be viewed as a threat and the onus is on them to invest in ventures that aim to change the narrative.