William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Corporate SA is having a greed attack

Corporate South Africa mostly takes its social responsibilities seriously. That’s maybe because its sector is besieged by nostalgic communists from within government and on the streets by wilfully ignorant radicals.

There’s Woolworths with proclamations of commitment to social transformation and pious promises of ethically driven behaviour. There’s furniture retailer Joshua Doore, which for more than 30 years has urged us to remember: “You have an uncle in the furniture business.”

But Big Business is not all rosy cheeks and avuncular men. For many that’s merely a mask, which periodically slips to reveal a countenance puckered in greed. That’s particularly true during an economic downturn, when profit margins are slipping and shareholders are grumbling.

This week we got a couple of glimpses of the ugly face of SA business. The one was inadvertent — misbehaviour exposed Facebook. The other was triggered by hubris — cellphone giants so eager to stifle competition that they were blissfully unaware of the brand damage they were doing themselves.

Let’s start with the brazenly greedy. Vodacom and MTN are appearing before a parliamentary committee, calling for the regulation of so-called over-the-top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp and Skype, which are essentially free and are therefore eroding the local cartel’s generous margins.

Generous margins they are, too, since SA cellphone and data charges are among the highest in the world. Last year MTN’s revenue was R146 billion, delivering earnings of R65 bn, while Vodacom’s were R75 billion and R27 billion respectively.

What makes their pleas for protection hypocritical is that their own SMS services, upon which particularly the poor are dependent, are both expensive and inefficient. And, of course, long forgotten are their hand-on-heart promises, dating back to the 1990s when they were applying for their telecom licences, to roll out high-speed, cheap networks to rural SA.

The other miscreant is the Lewis Group, a furniture and electrical goods retailer targeting the black market with easy credit and eye-watering mark-ups. It ran into unexpected flak when it sold a washing machine on credit to the gardener of businessman Onne Vegter.

What the gardener — “a very humble, timid man in his 60s, with limited literacy” — did not comprehend until Vegter pointed it out, was that the cost of the R5 999 appliance would over the three-year repayment period amount to R18 555. This exorbitant price of a machine that was already over-priced, was achieved by capitalising to the ticket price various dubious insurances, extended warranties and compulsory delivery charges, and finally revving up their returns by charging 23% compound interest.

When Vegter approached Lewis on behalf of his gardener, they made the mistake of not simply cancelling the contract. Instead, they launched into screeds of sanctimonious explanations as to why this is actually all above board and perfectly acceptable.

Vegter claims theythreatened him with “consequences” for his “defamatory” suggestion that Lewis’ practices might be a contravention to the National Credit Regulator’s stipulations on reckless lending. It’s a threat that draws a chuckle from Dave Woollam, a director of Summit Financial Services and a consumer activist — he was one of those who drove the recent successful class action on illegal garnishee orders — whose particular bugbear is the exploitation of financially illiterate consumers.

Woollam has also earned the ire of the Lewis Group before. A year ago his damning investigation into their selling techniques led to Lewis last year having to refund R67.1 million to pensioners and self-employed customers for “mistakenly” selling them unemployment insurance. They were also slapped with a R10 million fine.

Woollam says such “excessive selling” is par for the course among retailers that target the less affluent. “But Lewis is the worst of the worst and has a particularly deceptive way of operating … they are exploitative, immoral and unethical.”

The problem is that many of the corporate giants don’t appreciate that legality and morality are not the same.

Vodacom and MTN are trying to seize the moral high ground over OTTs by arguing that unlike them, Skype and WhatsApp don’t pay taxes here. Retail gougers like Lewis argue that everything they do is absolutely legal.

However, most ordinary people can see through this corporate sophistry. They instinctually know that something can be legal but wrong, hence the anger on social media. These ducking and diving captains of commerce would be foolish to ignore it.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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    • RodB

      Corporate SA is not having ‘an attack of greed’… It’s got a chronic illness that has afflicted corporate SA since Moses fell off his mule.

      Greed is their mantra… always has been, always will be… from colluding on the costing of stadiums to the cost of a loaf of bread… So what what if the poorest of the poor’s children go to bed without even a crust of bread.

      Stuff them. Let them starve.

      Let a person pay a fortune for a washing machine. Let us all pay through the nose for calls and SMSes. Let’s buy goods that go up in price, while the actual volume of what we are buying goes down.

      Let’s face it… None of the people doing this give a shit. You will probably censor this or not publish it at all, but basically the attitude on the part of far too many business people in this country is: ‘Fuck you.’

    • Manu

      A good article. I also take my hat off to people like Onne Vegter who stand in defense of those who are abused.

      But I do have one major criticism, and it has to do with this sentence, ” It ran into unexpected flak when it sold a washing machine on credit to the gardener of businessman Onne Vegter”. Even on the Facebook page of Onne Vegter it’s written in this way. Everyone in the story is named except the gardener.
      Does this gardener not have a name?

      Referring to people by their names give’s them agency and supports their humanity. It’s a form of respect. But time and again in conversations or news articles, I see or hear people referred to as things of Mr or Ms so and so.

      Some examples:
      The domestic worker of Mrs … said that the family dog, called Spot, was stolen by the thieves..

      “Mr … broke his leg in the car accident. His worker also died in the same accident. Mr … is expected to make a speedy recovery.”

      It’s a very dehumanizing way of talking about people.

    • WSM

      @WSM Yes, I take your point but my reading of it was that Vegter’s gardener, whom he describes as very shy, did not want to be identified in a very bitter public barney.

    • http://www.wild-wings-safaris.com/ Onne Vegter

      Manu, do you have a name? Is Manu your name? Why don’t you put your full name and surname for everyone to see? Is is because you value privacy, perhaps? Well so does my gardener. He values his privacy and does not want his name plastered all over the media. I specifically asked him if we can mention his name and he said no, please don’t mention my name. This is not dehumanizing. Quite the opposite, it is out of respect for his dignity and privacy that his name was not mentioned. And because he requested that. It would be disrespectful and dehumanizing to then go ahead and publish his name, against his wishes.

    • Manu

      Dear Onne
      First of all let me say that I commend you for doing a good deed for another human being.

      Now onto the issue of names and how we refer to people. Manu is a name I have chosen to give myself. it’s not my real name. Like the person you helped (who I shall call Joe) I use it to protect my anonymity and the vengeful people who lurk out there. I could have called myself ‘Somebody’s gardener’ but doing so would have diminished my individuality.

      So you see you could have easily shielded Joe by giving him a pseudonym. But by referring to him as ‘your gardener’ it (a) casts him as something of yours, and (b) it makes him identifiable to all his friends and your friends.

      Referring to people using possessive adjectives makes them into objects of possession. My gardener, my domestic worker, my …

      How would you feel if you saw an article about yourself in the newspaper and you were constantly referred to as a ‘thing’ of somebody?
      All I am saying is that there are better ways to talk about others.