Business Day

KPMG and McKinsey sagas do not shift voters’ beliefs


How are the KPMG and McKinsey sagas playing out in the ANC heartland? What do they mean in places that have been voting consistent­ly for the governing party since 1994?

For the past five years, I have been working in towns in the eastern Free State. Here, people’s growing disenchant­ment with the ANC is matched only by their distrust of anybody else with power or influence. In the local government elections held in 2016, the communitie­s in which I’ve been working returned ANC councillor­s with 70%-80% of the vote, albeit with a vastly reduced turnout.

I haven’t visited since KPMG and McKinsey exploded into the news, but a WhatsApp group of 45 people that I establishe­d for research purposes some time ago is an effective shrinker of distance. The group is a motley crew of municipal workers, petrol attendants, township businesspe­ople, a hairdresse­r, the manager of a small crèche — ordinary folk.

Not everyone’s views are the same, of course, but most of those who responded to my questions about the saga said that they were not surprised.

Of course, global firms were involved, I was told. Jacob Zuma is a country bumpkin, after all, and the Guptas are a small-time family from the Indian provinces. Neither has the sophistica­tion to steal billions of rand. There can be no corruption on a grand scale without those whose expertise can pull it off.

“But these firms are just a side story,” I protested. “If I had to walk into a room and describe in a sentence what had happened in SA over the last eight years, I would say: ‘One family captured the state by corrupting the president.’ McKinsey and KPMG would not make it into my one sentence; they’re just not the story.”

“Then you have missed the story,” came one reply. “You are naïve,” came another. “Zuma is so stupid all he got was a fire pool,” came a third. “The ones who know what they’re doing walked away with billions.”

I tried another approach. “The KMPG people were fired,” I wrote. “They work in a world where corruption is not tolerated. Zuma is not held to account. Not even his underlings are. The man who did his bidding at public enterprise­s was promoted to finance minister. Unlike at KPMG, corrupt ANC leaders can get away with anything.”

“You’re assuming everyone who steals gets caught,” I was told. “KPMG is the tip of the iceberg. The rest is deep in the ocean.”

I found the conversati­on dispiritin­g for two reasons. First because it seems that we believe what we believe; any new evidence simply fills the contours of the story we are already telling.

Mine is that an unholy alliance of politician­s and bureaucrat­s in hock to a rich family has hijacked public institutio­ns. Theirs is that global corporatio­ns have stolen SA.

Whatever happens next will simply give credence to our respective stories.

More disconcert­ing is this: the view of the world communicat­ed to me on WhatsApp is no less thoughtful, cogent or rational than my own. It is simply born of a different experience.

In my corner of the world, the idea that a global auditing firm is honest most of the time is plausible. In the world of my interlocut­ors, it is dubious.

In theirs, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mmusi Maimane are no less dangerous than Jacob Zuma because they move in a universe that is simply distrusted.

It is quite conceivabl­e that many of my interlocut­ors, cogent, rational and alive to everything Zuma has done, will vote in 2019 for more of the same. Steinberg teaches African studies at Oxford University.

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