Steinheist — unpacking the biggest corporate scam in SA… | #daitngscams | #lovescams

The first episode of the docuseries by production company Idea Candy and directed by Richard Finn Gregory, was released on Showmax on 22 September, with the next two parts set to drop on the following Thursdays. The series profiles Markus Jooste, whose years of corruption led to investigations into “accounting irregularities” and his resignation as CEO in 2017, which wiped billions of rands from the JSE – the biggest corporate scam in South African history.

The company was started by German entrepreneur, Bruno Steinhoff who purchased cheap furniture in Eastern Europe and sold it in the West, but it was only after merging with Markus Jooste’s dodgy furniture company Gommagomma and being listed on the JSE that Steinhoff became a household name in South Africa and grew rapidly. 

Bruno Steinhoff. Image: Courtesy of Showmax
Markus Jooste. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

When the cards finally toppled, at the height of the company’s inflated value, it had subsumed established South African brands like Ackermans, Incredible Connection, and PEP, it was employing more than 130,000 people across four continents and it was worth more than R200-billion, 90% of which vanished in a week.

Thousands of ordinary South Africans lost their investments in the collapse, even people who didn’t know what Steinhoff was, because government pensions were invested in it; and yet there was a lot of confusion about how and why this had happened. 

The production company assembled a host of savvy South African experts to break it down, led by editor of the Financial Mail, Rob Rose, whose 2018 book of the same name the series is based on. Rose is not the most animated of interviewees, but he is the person who’s able to contextualise the disaster and extracts the most relevant lessons. 

Rob Rose. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

Rose points out that while the South African media and public are highly preoccupied with the corruption of political leaders, there is less understanding of the abuses committed by corporate leaders, even though their impact can be just as devastating. Indeed, the numbers involved in the Steinhoff scandal make Nkandla seem almost inconsequential.

That is not to create a dichotomy between the public and private sectors, or undermine the severity of state capture — as emphasised in the series, corporate and governmental fraud are often linked or facilitated by one another. The Guptas’ dynasty also dissolved in 2017 — the other prime example of how white-collar crime is treated differently to other kinds of crime in South Africa. As it’s put in the series, “If you steal R100,000 you go to jail, if you defraud a company of R100-billion, you don’t go to jail”. 

Despite the gravity of his crimes, Jooste has spent his days since the collapse swanning about Hermanus. It’s taken a long time for Steinhoff to figure out how to bring him to account. Apparently, once the cat was out of the bag, he told his wife, “Give this five years and by then it would have blown over and we can move on with our lives”. The timing of this series is a perfect contradiction of that arrogance. 

Part 1: Building context

Rose explains that such massive scandals often grow from one pivotal decision to cover up a small mistake. Other experts weigh in on more abstract biographical elements: forensic psychologist Dr Giada Del Fabbro pipes in with vague and slightly sensationalist theories about his psychopathy, explaining terms like “snakes in suits” and postulating Jooste’s mental state; while Pieter Du Toit, author of The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaire’s Club digs into Jooste’s poor and yet privileged upbringing and how his desire to be a part of Stellenbosch society drove his egotistical decisions as a businessman. 

Dr Giada Del Fabbro. Image: Courtesy of Showmax
Pieter du Toit. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

The series is definitely made with South African audiences in mind, but is also explained from scratch to accommodate international viewers, necessitating a level of objectivity. It’s fascinating to consider familiar spaces like Stellenbosch from a fresh perspective. 

Former Steinhoff executive Christopher Rutledge speaks often and damningly about the tribalism within the company, shaped by the toxic masculinity of apartheid structures — machismo, braai vleis, drinking and casual misogyny. Kganki Matabane, CEO of the Black Business Council later suggests that any lack of diversity in a company contributes to a culture of complicity and unaccountability that can enable corruption. 

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Christopher Rutledge. Image: Courtesy of Showmax
Kgani Matabane. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

There are also engaging interviews with financial analyst Craig Butters, who spotted the signs early on but was mocked by external analysts, a prime example of how whistle-blowers struggle to get taken seriously; and Christo Wiese, billionaire former chair at Pepkor and Steinhoff and at one time the richest person in the country. 

Christo Wiese. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

Gregory handled the diversity of these interviews so that the human side of the Steinhoff saga is easy to understand. The series falls a little short however in its oversimplification of what actually happened and borderline-patronising explanations of basic financial concepts. 

The narrative is engaging and well-paced and there is some tension in the score although Gregory resisted the temptation to overdramatise and force a thriller. But in the interest of making complex financial concepts accessible to a wider audience, financial journalist Fifi Peters has been cast to break down the essentials of investment with visual metaphors, in the style of a magician’s assistant. “We’re going to be hearing quite a lot of financial jargon as we go along, so let’s break down some of those terms.”

Fifi Peters. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

This gimmick is a pretty transparent copy of the Jenga blocks scene from The Big Short, where the fourth wall is broken by various characters and celebrity cameos to explain financial concepts, but Steinheist is a documentary — the fourth wall was broken from the start, and without the comedic flare, the theatricality of the explanations lose their ironic edge. 

The concepts she explains are so basic that it seems unlikely a person would be watching a documentary on financial fraud without already understanding them: What is a share? What is insider trading? What is short-selling? You’re unlikely to finish Steinheist with greater understanding of finance and you could learn a similar amount about the specifics of the scandal on Wikipedia. For some people, maybe those are selling points, but they also seem at odds with the intention to expose Jooste. 

As a reference to Jooste’s obsession with horseracing, Steinheist leans into a horse motif, symbolising links to his upbringing, his elite circle, his propensity for taking risks, and even his inflating the value of Steinhoff in the form of a Trojan horse. Not all the multimedia footage is used as effectively, though. A recurring CGI map graphic and the inclusion of one too many cringey promotional Steinhoff videos also don’t measure up to the quality of the interviews.

The most valuable insights the series presents to laymen viewers are explanations of the systematic flaws that prevent such corruption from being identified and the red flags to look out for. For example, Rose suggests in episode one that because a lot of analysts still sit in investment banks which earn money advising on deals to companies, it’s against their interests to question them. In episode three, Bernard Agulhas, former CEO of the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors even reads out a long list of red flags that could have alerted auditors to potential fraud existing. 

Albert van Driel. Image: Courtesy of Showmax

It might come as a surprise that Steinhoff has survived this disaster, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — it may help salvage some of the losses incurred by shareholders, and lest we forget that Steinhoff itself will be one of the main claimants against Jooste when he sees his day in court.

Steinheist puts forward a clear case that misrepresentations of the truth by private companies are still not scrutinised to the same extent as that of politicians. Agulhas complains about how auditors are held to account and subject to having their licenses stripped even though private parties are not. 

According to Albert van Driel from the Association for Monitoring and Advocacy of Government Pensions, the long-term effect of Steinhoff’s collapse is actually the big problem — that “defenceless people who were sweeping the streets” have already been caught up in the Steinhoff situation, many of them without even understanding why. DM/ ML

Part one of Steinheist is available in South Africa on Showmax from 22 September with part two on 29 September and part three on 6 October.

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