finweek

A year of stumbling along

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(Picture: Supplied)
(Picture: Supplied)

The periodic table contains elements familiar to us all: hydrogen, for instance – one of the building blocks of life – and other less familiar natural elements such as copernicium, or the incredibly rare astatine. 

But none are as rare as hazenile. That’s because hazenile doesn’t exist ... except briefly in the mind of Gwede Mantashe, minister of mineral and energy resources, during September who told would-be investors at an international conference that hazenile – a battery mineral – was to be found in the country’s famed Congo Caves. 

Like hazenile, the location was also a fiction, invented by an April Fool’s prankster that seemed only to dupe Mantashe’s speech writer.

As far as 2019 business blunders went, Mantashe’s was among the most embarrassing; regrettably, though, it wasn’t the most serious.  

Chemical brothers leave Sasol

Worse than talking about a fictional natural element is trying to exploit a real one so poorly that it ends up costing shareholders 50% more than planned. Enter petrochemicals giant Sasol, which in October fired its joint CEOs after the Lake Charles Chemicals Project came in with a price tag of $13.9bn, compared with its initial $8.9bn scoping.

Sasol chairman Mandla Gantsho described the resignations of the CEOs as an act of valour, which is sugar-coating par excellence. The fact of the matter is that an oversight so grievous brings into disrepute the organisation as a whole – which is where Old Mutual finds itself. 

Not going

Old Mutual twice served its CEO, Peter Moyo, with a notice terminating his employment. This followed on a row that broke out after Moyo and business associates paid themselves dividends from an investment company, NMT Capital, in which Old Mutual had preference shares. 

The debate is that Moyo ought to have made sure the preference shares were paid first before pocketing dividends. In any event, the Old Mutual board, led vocally by former finance minister Trevor Manuel, declared a breach of trust that’s proved too serious to stitch up. 

Manuel, though, mustn’t have counted on the courts, where the matter currently resides, with Moyo’s legal counsel confident he can return to his desk. Good for lawyers, bad for Old Mutual, the identity of which is now severely tainted, according to analysts. 

Things only worsened in November when Old Mutual was forced to apologise to the family of a client to whom it failed to pay out a funeral policy. The family brought the corpse to an Old Mutual office as proof of death. 

For Old Mutual, a procedural financial matter threatens to become popular grievance. 

Just ask Momentum Metropolitan Holdings how damaging this can be after they were forced to pay out handsomely on the life of a murdered policyholder who happened to not disclose all his ailments on his medical history. 

Take note, Old Mutual: being legally ‘in the right’ doesn’t always make you a winner. 

Great expectations

There’s nothing like a great launch, or more embarrassing when expectations fall flat. 

Take Naspers*, which in June was forced to postpone its Euronext exchange listing after the listing circulars were sent to the wrong shareholders. 

In terms of listing rules, all shareholders are required to have equal time to dwell on the public offering, but Naspers had incorrectly paired shareholder names to addresses.

As a predominantly internet company, one is tempted to blame the postman. Happily, Naspers went for a simple postponement. There was no such opportunity for the launch of Disney Plus. 

The media behemoth’s streaming channel is making about 500 films and 7 500 episodes of programming available on the new channel. 

But on opening day in November, viewers were instead greeted with a graphic of a perplexed-looking Wreck-It Ralph, a character from a Disney feature film known for his ham-fisted approach to problem-solving, paired with a network error message. 

Apparently, the service crashed Disney servers. 

Anti-social media

No annual business blunder feature can be complete without dipping into the shark-infested waters of social media. 

Take, for instance, the $800m pruning from SnapChat’s share price in March after singer Rihanna objected to an advert that clearly slipped through the social platform’s filters.

This was the game ‘Would You Rather’, which advertised itself by posing the question whether users would rather “slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown”, the singer’s one-time boyfriend who pleaded guilty to court charges of domestic abuse. 

SnapChat’s failure to properly monitor its advertisements is but an hors d’oeuvre to the truly seismic importance of Facebook’s association with the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. 

Since then, Team Trump has spent $15.4m a year on Facebook advertising which has been used to make, in the words of Fortune magazine: “... provably false claims about issues like border security, immigration and to spread conspiracy theories such as those against former vice-president, Joe Biden”.

The question of how social media marries its business with one of the fundamental questions of democracy – free speech – is being played out in Facebook’s backyard, which makes this a potential business blunder in progress. 

Appearing before Congress, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, defended his platform’s choice to allow politicians to potentially spread misinformation in targeted advertisements. 

His company stood for free expression and “... shouldn’t be making so many important decisions about speech on its own”. 

It isn’t.

Google has subsequently announced restrictions on political advertising and Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, announced he would ban all political ads from his platform. 

For Facebook, it worries about how, in adjusting its advertising rules, it will alienate groups who depend on it for fundraising and organising. 

But popular consciousness may be moving against Facebook. Without providing details, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Facebook and Zuckerberg should “pay the price” for harming democracy. 

Failing over a decade

Tech products

So many blunders, so little column centimetres. 

Many of the most memorable failures of the last ten years are not when corporate giants spring a hole, pitch and split like the Titanic, but when popular tech brands launch products that don’t end up being, well, ‘popular’.

According to PC Mag, there is an abundance of such failure: The Blackberry Playbook, Facebook Home, and even Vine, the social media platform that limited shared videos to six seconds and which was bought by Twitter before it failed to find a way to monetise it. 

But the winner is Google Glass (2013), technology that would enable data to magically swim before your eyes. Preferably to be used in spectacles, the tech was ditched, never to be seen again (literally), owing to problems associated with privacy and, worse, technical limitations.

Eskom

Eskom is an obvious choice as an example of homegrown imbroglios of the last decade. 

Less obvious, however, is that one of the fatal seeds to Eskom’s current crisis was a decision by government to ditch the findings of an energy white paper of the early 2000s that had recommended the partial privatisation of the country’s energy sector in favour of retooling Eskom. 

Instead of being one energy provider in a market of competitors, the ANC decided around 2009 that Eskom should be the sole provider. And among its new tasks was the new build project portfolio of Medupi and Kusile. 

This was despite Eskom having lost much of the skills that were vital to conceptualising, planning and building multi-billion-rand projects of national scope. The early incompetence of the Medupi and Kusile construction projects created the opportunity for nefarious political and corporate malfeasance. 

So, it is the energy projects promising 9 600MW of new power that provided less than half the energy at double the expense and have become a major factor in the power utility’s R450bn debt pile – deemed the single largest threat to the SA economy.

SA Inc.

Can the fortune of a sovereign state be ascribed to a moral blunder? 

Well, they say the fish rots from the head, therefore the administration of former president Jacob Zuma has begat an era of political and corporate criminality. 

In the words of Royal Bafokeng Platinum CEO Steve Phiri at a mining conference in 2014: corruption has become SA’s “national sport”. And shareholders have had a hard time of it. 

Take, for instance, EOH, the IT service provider which identified R930m worth of suspicious transactions; Tongaat Hulett, where accounting irregularities led to the departure of its CEO, and a balance sheet containing R14.6bn in liabilities; and of course, Steinhoff which, incidentally, has contributed to the diminishment of legendary entrepreneur Christo Wiese, who is also likely to leave Shoprite.

Then there are the parastatal failures at SAA and the PIC while companies connected with them – Deloitte working on contract for Eskom – have been accused of fraudulent activity by the power utility.

Brexit

It’s hard to know fact from fiction while the colossal struggle, known as Brexit, continues to play out on our screens daily. 

If it materialises, however, the departure of the UK from the European Union will have devastating effects for the “sceptr’d isle”.According to the UK’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s version of Brexit will see Britain’s GDP 3.5% weaker in ten years’ time, equal to £70bn. 

It might, though, be a case of the devil that Britain knows: Were it to accept a no-deal Brexit, the GDP would be about 5.6% weaker by 2030. 

*finweek is a publication of Media24, a subsidiary of Naspers.  

This article originally appeared in the 12 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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