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Book Review: The Stellenbosch Mafia by Pieter DuToit

Stellenbosch Mafia by Pieter DuToit
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Book Review: The Stellenbosch Mafia by Pieter DuToit

The title of the book suggests that there is a Stellenbosch Mafia and a Billionaire’s Club, yet the contents argue more strongly that neither exists. Make no mistake, the anecdotes describing the workings of Rupert, Jooste and to a lesser extent, Christo Wiese and Jannie Mouton – all make interesting and entertaining reading.

Author DuToit delves into Afrikaner Culture, from the days of Apartheid to modern times. I think he implies that despite political change, the culture and behaviour of ‘white minority capital’ still remains under fierce scrutiny by populist politicians and voters. This is something that Johann Rupert despises, especially since he claims that his father’s and his own legacy, belies the notion that their companies have done harm to South Africa or it’s people. He feels his efforts and those of his father are under appreciated.

I struggle to understand the names of the first two chapters of the book. Firstly, ‘A powerful elite, out of touch and out of reach’ and secondly, ‘Stellenbosch: Life in the Bubble’. Simply, because these labels seem to be more aligned to the public criticism of Johann Rupert’s interview with Given Mkari, of Power FM. Rather, than with the wealth, power and influence of Afrikaans speaking people with roots in Stellenbosch. The wealthy people DuToit investigates in the book, are anything but out of touch and living in a bubble. They are without exception, international business people with powerful alliances and with a broad spread of global investments.

Many mistakes and foibles of a Stellenbosch business group are mentioned in the book, but these seem to me to be rather a smoke screen for the real issues. DuToit talks of the lunches, handshake deals and the influence of sport and corruption in rugby. Links to Matie culture and Paul Roos Gymnasium are mentioned, along with old versus new money.

Most surprisingly, the book alludes to a form of nepotism. Where board seats are exchanged and contra investments made between companies that allows for influence and skin in the game within each others equity. Keeping the money and power amongst friends so to speak. The latter probably is not unique, but unusual in the world of global finance, centred and influenced from a single rural town.

Many of the so called ‘alleged Mafia’ are privately critical of each other and all don’t actually live in Stellenbosch and haven’t done for decades. There are of course well described cultural similarities within their business community, but also sharp differences in style and interests. This does not support the view that this ‘Afrikaner Elite’ are part of a homogenous group or single club. Hence, I would argue that the title of the book is somewhat misleading, for the purposes of marketing possibly. I really don’t know.

Much is said about Rupert and Wiese, yet a lot of the positives pertaining to both of their business legacies are omitted. Maybe this was the intention of the author to appear neutral or unbiased. I would not be surprised however, if Rupert takes a wide berth from this book, despite his generosity in agreeing to interviews.

Stellenbosch Mafia by Pieter DuToit

There are other good books about the machinations of Markus Jooste, such as Steinheist by Rob Rose, which detail closely the accounting scandal, which surely must lead to a scale of litigation not yet seen. Maybe we never will though. This, I think, is the real story. How will a few powerful people, coincidently Afrikaans speaking, with links to Steinhoff, Stellenbosch University, farming, rugby and investing in each others businesses, avoid prosecution? Who are they, what did they do and why? We won’t ever know without real investigation and litigation.

Is there anything unique to Stellenbosch culture, that will relieve the perpetrators of the Steinhoff scandal by allowing them to make good their mistakes or pay for their crimes? Or, to allow them to evade prosecution by means of a cultural cover up? Many investors were and still are adversely affected by Jooste’s cunning commercial deals and creative accounting. Many people too, both outside and inside Stellenbosch, feel prejudiced by Rupert’s so called, ‘cognitive dissonance’ and angry about his wealth accumulated during the Apartheid era.

For me the history of Stellenbosch money that this book delves into, is less interesting than the questions of whether Wiese trusted Jooste with his fortune as a means to get his money offshore? Or, why did the brainstrust and the gatekeepers of Steinhoff allow the group to trade in a multitude of currencies, with separate sets of auditors for each? Was there complicity and blind eyes turned while the share price was tanking?

Why did the Stellenbosch auditors not address the ‘tick box’ method of corporate governance years earlier? Why was the system of two layered (Executive & Non-executive) boards of directors used in Europe, not applied to Steinhoff SA Head Office as well? Why were so many mergers and acquisitions, involving share swaps as payment rather than cash, not questioned? (especially since share prices fluctuate at best).

Why didn’t anyone not question Jooste’s lifestyle, involving enormous personal purchases years earlier? (if he earned R120 million a year at best, yet was alleged to have spent R180 million on horses in a single year alone) Why has it taken years to bring any of these issues into a courtroom? Why is the SA Companies Act and company secretarial practice, seemingly not fit for purpose?

The questions above and many more leave a bad taste in the mouths of innocent investors duped by cunning, smart groups of people. Are these manoeuvres perpetrated only by groups residing within Steinhoff, Stellenbosch or further afield? We cannot merely cast unproven aspersions, such as a local Stellenbosch culture as the headliner. We are yet to find out the answers without hard work, money and a wilfuness to find the truth. For the book to suggest that Stellenbosch style Mafia deals go further than Steinhoff, without criminal investigation, is disingenuous to say the least.

The title of the book casts a broad slur that requires evidence to support it. This is patently missing in sufficient detail to substantiate the claim made by the book title. The reference to Stellenbosch being a Mafia style incubator of bad business practice at the very least, is not sufficiently substantiated by the book. Similarities and differences may still be brought to light, which through litigation may prove factual or just coincidental.

In conclusion, while this book is entertaining and interesting in parts, it does not provide answers to the most important question of all. Who will be implicated and prosecuted for business practices that lost many innocent investors in Steinhoff, their life savings? Many still believe that financial scandals worldwide, are notorious for being covered up and prosecutions if any, are mainly reserved for a few scapegoats. The notion that some people are more equal than others pervades. This book does not dispel this fear, nor does it provide reasonable conclusions or hope. The hope needed to help things to change for the better, remains illusionary and unlikely. For me then, this book provides more questions than answers.

I am not convinced yet, that another group or subculture elsewhere in the world, given the same low level of governance and good people doing nothing, would not be hoodwinked by another group of charlatans. Why innocent people are not protected from them by the authorities they pay for, with their taxes and management bonuses, we are yet to know.

In a world of growing cybersecurity dangers, old-fashioned accounting maladministration, is seemingly still a more dangerous phenomenon – that does not necessarily germinate in Stellenbosch.

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