Bruce Whitfield
  • South Africans have lost their fear of consequence.
  • Wholesale plunder in public and private sectors shows a sheer disregard for others.
  • Perhaps it's time for World-Cup style courts to deal quickly with white collar crime.

A guy walked past me at the shops this week. His Nike T-shirt read: “Won’t be caught.” 

It could just as easily double as a new range of South Africa corporate wear. If you are in the T-shirt business, get your machines running. There is going to be massive demand!

Think of the politicians who could wear it on the red carpet at state openings of parliament or at the next official opening of the Limpopo legislature.

Read: Why it's back to the future with Tito Mboweni

Imagine the accessories EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu could add to a well-styled understated T-shirt amidst reports that his brother Brian was one of the biggest beneficiaries of payments out of the VBS coffers - some of which appear to have found their way to the politician's account.

An allegation the party denies.

But then it would.

No wonder the EFF has been so vociferous in its criticism of the Reserve Bank and particularly of deputy DG Ismail Momoniat, who has been a key figure in exposing the VBS. 

The levels of depravity exposed in the extraordinary report by investigator advocate Terry Motau into the audacious plunder of VBS Mutual Bank, are surpassed only by the clumsy attempts at covering it up.

Why did the EFF launch a racist diatribe against Momoniat?

Because it was cornered, and taking a leaf out of the Bell Pottinger playbook, believed the louder it shouted the more likely it would be to get away with it.

Find yourself in trouble?

Start throwing mud. Claim a conspiracy.

Some of it will stick with your core audience and if you create enough distraction and doubt in the public mind, you might just get away with it.

Certainly, the report shows the perpetrators of South Africa’s biggest ever bank heist believed they would get away with it.

VBS executives, knowing they were breaking every rule in the book as they paid bribes to elicit deposits from public sector entities, fully believed that if the NDZ faction (the grouping aligned with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) won at Nasrec in December last year, they would face no consequences for the R1.8bn plunder of municipal and private depositors’ savings.  That in itself should incur the wrath of the minister who serves in the Ramaphosa cabinet.

The plunderers seem to have read a different version of the Robin Hood story to the one you and I grew up on.

Instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, they did the opposite.

It’s symptomatic of the breakdown of law and order in South Africa which has seen its prosecuting authorities denuded of skills, authority and ability to prosecute plunderers in both the private and public sectors.

Just as the T-shirts would not have been out of place in the VBS boardroom, they would be equally suitable at Steinhoff exco meetings, suitable too for executives at the SA divisions of Bain, McKinsey, SAP and KPMG to name but a few.

Bloomberg reported this week that days before the implosion of Steinhoff, former CEO Markus Jooste was warning friends to exit their holdings. Did he not believe that he would be caught either?

Like the fraudsters at VBS, there is a digital “paper trail” of messages including the non-specific apology and the acceptance of personal culpability by Jooste and now clear evidence that he may have encouraged insider trading.

Like mobster Al Capone who finally went to jail related to income tax offences and not for the multitude of other crimes he committed, South African authorities are unlikely to be picky about which charges would stick to see Jooste spend time reflecting on his career in a jail cell.

The VBS matter, far less involved than that of Steinhoff, has been relatively quick to wrap up. It provides a useful base for the Hawks to begin formal investigations into the role insiders, facilitators and political parties played in the collapse and subsequent bombastic attempts at a cover up. The PWC investigation into Steinhoff is likely to reveal a similar degree of disdain for the law as was exhibited at VBS and will also provide a base for criminal prosecution.

It’s been interesting this week to see the response to the resignation of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, left in an untenable position after lying about meetings with the Guptas and the fact that his son appears to have received preferential treatment in seeking funding from the Public Investment Corporation, while his father was its chairperson.

There is a belief that Nene has set a precedent now and that by doing the right thing by going before he was pushed will encourage others to do the same.

I sincerely doubt it.

If you believe for a moment the cohort of crooks, many of whom are still close to the centre of power will do the right thing now, then you are a more trusting person than I.

Remember when “Dr” Pallo Jordan was exposed for not having a PhD but he used the title anyway because it sounded good? There are scores of people masquerading under false pretences today. Jordan’s admission did nothing to facilitate better behaviour from his fellow South Africans.

Rather than admit to mistakes or worse, to deliberate fraud, you lose access to the national piggy bank. It’s unlikely there will be too many takers.

It all goes back to the T-Shirt. “Won’t be caught.”

Perhaps we could add a message on the back: “So what if I am caught? What you going to do about it?”

It’s long overdue that some high-profile examples are made across both public and private sectors - and quickly.

Here’s another idea, for nothing.

When FIFA took over running the country during the 2010 World Cup, 56 special courts were set up to speedily prosecute offenders during that period.

Perhaps it’s time to institute a series of capture courts to rapidly deal with the detritus of humanity that took South Africa to the brink.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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