South Africans are known to be a very forgiving people; it is a good thing.
We’re also easily fooled by mind games played on us by men and women in politics, as well as those in the private sector who have colluded in state capture and other forms of corruption, in partnership with them and unethical officials employed in the public sector. This is not a good thing.
It is as if all one needs to do is throw a lot of stuff at us in order to confuse us into believing that something is being done when nothing is being done - as one could argue is happening with the Zondo Commission inquiry – or press an imaginary fast-forward button on events happening in the country to make many lose focus and stop connecting the dots.
This can probably explain the success with which people who damage our country’s economy and once-promising social cohesion routinely get redeployed into new positions in the public sector or are allowed to lie low for a while without much consequence.
We know them; some head up important oversight committees of parliament, others have been vested with new ministerial responsibilities, and another group is lying low, enjoying the fruits of their crimes against the interests of our country.
And then there is the South African audit profession. It remains "tjoepstil", hoping we forget, despite all the information that has come into the public space, in recent years, revealing the enabler role some members of this profession have played in state capture and other forms of corruption.
It is not a case of only one prominent firm being dragged through the mud.
If the audit profession really cared about reputation and the need to win the trust of South Africans, it would be leading discussions – unprompted – about:
- What other unethical conduct linked to state capture and other forms of corruption, apart from what has been revealed in the media, it has unearthed;
- What it has done about what it has unearthed;
- What measures it is putting in place to ensure that none of what happened ever happens again;
- What it will do with the matter of consulting services and auditing services sitting in the same space; like church and state. Will the same audit firms continue to play auditor and advisor for the same clients, especially government departments and state-owned entities?
- What stance it will take regarding audit firms staying too long with the same client and a) mastering the art of either enabling wrongdoing or looking the other way when wrong-doing is done, or b) hogging the space and preventing new industry entrants from entering the profession?
Earlier this year, the annual Brand Summit South Africa, which I convene, invited members of the audit profession to come and have an open, public, conversation about the matters above.
Only the much-respected Auditor-General’s Office and KPMG were prepared to come and engage in the proposed difficult, uncomfortable, conversations. Other members of the profession ostensibly preferred to have any such discussions only with their peers, in safe locations, away from the glare of the media and the public.
It has to be said that in the entire South African audit industry, KPMG received the most negative exposure and reputational damage – deservedly so – for some of the wrong done by people employed by it during the state capture economy.
However, under the leadership of Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, its chairman, this firm has come a long way in owning up to the wrongs that were done in its name. And, not only has KPMG been willing to engage openly, it has also publicly stated the steps it has put in place to deal with what happened and to improve its future path. But time will tell, of course.
In trying to put a perspective to what happened, Professor Nkuhlu referred to the importance of ‘public interest’ in the auditing profession, reminding members of the accounting and auditing professions that it has been a mistake to place emphasis on client interest, often at the expense of public interest, and to only be concerned about acquiring and retaining lucrative clients.
Many of the people who enabled state capture and other forms of corruption to happen and to last for as long as they have, benefiting from related crimes, are well educated and professionally decorated professionals.
Their conduct has shown us that academic qualifications, no matter how colourful, are nothing if the persons holding them are not ethically grounded and respectful of the need to always consider public interest, especially in a country like South Africa, where the massive negative legacy of apartheid and the vast economic disparities separating our communities continue to stare us in the face.
KPMG should be progressively reintegrated into the mainstream, provided that it remains true to its word and the laudable steps it has begun to take. But it cannot, alone, be reasonably expected to provide South Africans with answers to the questions raised above.
The broader South African audit profession – especially those members of it who seem to think that remaining "tjoepstil", or quietly tiptoeing around the room, will ensure that we forget its failure to protect public interest when hundreds of billions of rand were stolen from us, must still come forward and tell South Africans how it intends to address the issues raised and to do things differently, going forward.
We would be complicit and have no one to blame but ourselves if we let them and their accomplices in politics and government get away with what happened.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.