Countering the kangaroo court
Nene was axed more for what the ‘Zuptas’ did than for anything he did
Ayoung friend who is about to sign up with one of the big four accounting firms told me her biggest fear is being asked to accommodate some small discrepancy in figures she has to audit. She wasn’t virtue-signalling or suggesting she might be more ethical than the next person, or even the next auditor. She is worried about a dilemma she might face in the future: does she stick rigidly to her ticking obligations or does she allow for some slack? And if she allows for slack, how much? Or are auditors now being watched so closely that there is absolutely no tolerance for even a sliver of slack?
I couldn’t make out if her concern about governance implications of her use of discretion is really good news or really bad news. It certainly seems to be at odds with what I was told some years ago was the popular view among accounting students — that having to study stuff like business ethics and corporate governance was a bit of a drag and rather pointless.
Now it seems studying beyond the strict confines of accounting or business is thought to have some use.
But it’s difficult not to suspect that business ethics and governance are being studied for no better reason than to get an indication of how to play the system.
Certainly, governance and ethics have suffered as much a drubbing as auditing has over the past few years. Every company caught out in one of the high-profile scandals signed off on the King code. Oakbay proudly displayed how much it adhered to all the code’s recommendations. KPMG even assisted listed companies to fulfil their King code box-ticking duties.
The problem is that the codes get thicker and the auditing obligations heavier with every corporate scandal. And then we discover the dodgy behaviour has merely adjusted to accommodate the new requirements.
Despite all the new requirements, firms collapse, shareholder wealth is destroyed and almost nobody is held to account. And we get angrier and shriller in our demand for retribution.
It’s the same in politics. After 10 terrifying years we’ve managed to unseat former president Jacob Zuma, but we haven’t been able to punish him.
The frustrating sense of disempowerment has created a kangaroocourt mentality. There is little doubt that large numbers of private and public sector employees should be put behind bars. But we’re now demanding punishment for anyone who has demonstrated lapses in judgment.
Assuming we have most of the information that is available to the president, there’s little doubt Nhlanhla Nene was punished more for what the Guptas and Zuma did to this country than for anything the former finance minister did. It seems wrong, even allowing for his exalted position, that Nene was axed for doing what at least 95% of us would do — succumb to the persistent bullying of a thuggish boss.
Perhaps instead of looking for more heads to roll and more laws to introduce, what we need is more effective management of the “slack” my young friend described. Not the degree of slack that would threaten an institution, but the degree most of us use to conduct our daily lives. The degree that would allow her to do a very good job without having to look over her shoulder constantly.
We’re now demanding punishment for anyone who has demonstrated lapses in judgment