KPMG and McK­in­sey sagas do not shift vot­ers’ be­liefs

Business Day - - FRONT PAGE - JONNY STEINBERG

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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