South African corporates are “world leaders” in corruption

January 19, 2020 in Uncategorized

Patrick Bond says South African corporates are “rated as world leaders” in corruption. I have asked Anneleigh Jacobsen to share her views. She has just written Corporation Games about corruption in those shiny Sandton buildings.

Izak de Vries and Anneleigh Jacobsen

Izak: Recently The Citizen quoted Professor Patrick Bond from the Wits School of Governance as saying: “Our Sandton, Cape Town, Durban and Stellenbosch executives are rated as world leaders in money laundering, bribery and corruption, procurement fraud, asset misappropriation and cybercrime.” Harsh words, quite Bond-ish. But then, you have just written Corporation Games in which you also unpack some high-flying execs doing wrong in Sandton. Why?

Corporation Games

Anneleigh: The values clash between what happens in boardrooms in South Africa and how that impacts the poorest of our people was one of the reasons I left the corporate world. I just could not reconcile the greed-based decisions with the providing of food products, especially, to those consumers who were barely able to keep their families fed and it seemed to me that the entire economic edifice of those large corporate companies was stacked against the poor – essentially stealing from them to line already fat corporate coffers and executive pockets. Ultimately I couldn’t find a way to change any of it, so I could no longer be party to it anymore. But it still bugged the hell out of me that firstly, no-one knows what goes on behind those glass doors, and that they get away with it far too often, so I decided to at least write one story about that world and hopefully more South Africans would understand and be outraged by it.

Izak: A number of journalists, like Jacques Pauw, James-Brent Styan and Pieter-Louis du Toit have moved to writing books. The fourth estate has embraced publishing companies. You chose fiction though. Why not non-fiction?

Anneleigh: A long time ago in a faraway galaxy called Rhodes University I did a joint Honours degree in English and Journalism, and while doing that (and loving every second), I remember deciding that if by some stroke of fortune I ever wrote a book, I would never write a book that only 3,5 professors in their ivory towers would ever read. So with Corporation Games I wanted to write an accessible, hopefully entertaining story that could possibly help people outside the corporate world understand the craziness of it and experience it viscerally rather than just intellectually.

Izak: Your lead character, Georgie, is a brand manager in a very big corporation. You too were a brand manager for a number of large corporations. How is Georgie different from Anneleigh?

Anneleigh: Actually technically Georgie is a Marketing Manager, not a Brand Manager. She would be most put-out to be demoted suchly.  And much as she draws on my experiences of that world, she also draws on the stories and lived experiences of many of my friends and colleagues from many different corporate entities, with a good dose of urban legend thrown in too! Where she draws most strongly from me, I suppose, is the inability to reconcile the Janus-like role of the marketer in facing both the boardroom greed and the extreme hardship of life on the edges of South Africa’s consumer economy. I gave her choices I’m glad I have never had to make, and I think she did really well on them!

Izak: Click here for an interview with Anneleigh Jacobsen in which she explains her own corporate background.

Confidential notes…

Izak: The shades, or ancestral spirits, play an active part in this book, making Corporation Games truly African. How did they end up in your novel?

Anneleigh: Well, as seems to be the way with shades, they simply showed up when I needed them. They were not originally part of the planning or part of my reference set in approaching this story. My frustration with the way the poorest consumers are dealt the worst cards in the economic cycle and their seeming powerlessness to do anything about it lead me to consider the ways in which rural and poorer consumers engage with their world and the powers that influence it, and in that meander the shades arrived to show me how they could help close the circle and fight the evils of the system.

Izak: Since an important part of the book is set in rural KwaZulu-Natal, we had to ask a Zulu-speaking person assess the manuscript. She loved it. How did you gain the necessary knowledge to write so knowingly, and dare I say sensitively, about a subject many white people know little about?

Anneleigh: I hope respectfully, too. I spent some time in the Valley of 1000 Hills a few years ago and my husband and I visited with the people, listened to their stories and thoroughly enjoyed being invited in to what is a fascinating culture that blends tradition and newness in such great ways. I just loved the air and the sense of place and the generous, diverse people. I kind of absorbed it all and could replay it in my head when I thought back on that time there. So it was easy to write from such a lovely memory, and to give some airtime to a way of life that many of us have never really experienced and can be quite dismissive of. I hope I did them justice and that the sense of identity and pride and deep rootedness that I experienced there comes across well.

Jacobsen with her husband

Izak: Georgie, your lead character, frequently goes into the homes of consumers who use her brand. She gets to know those customers. Was that something that you had done as well?

Anneleigh: Yes, I was fortunate to work in companies that genuinely did value the understanding of our consumers, even if that didn’t always lead to choices I was happy with in the end. It was a great privilege to be allowed in to visit people in their homes all around SA and see the differences in how they live, what their daily lives and cupboards and afternoons look like. And it is something that I think very few people get to experience. It was always the most humbling thing to do, such a reminder that the vast majority of people in SA live a very different life to those in Sandton and Higgovale.

Izak: The tension in the book is between those who are intimately in touch with the costumer and those who manage a company from their flashy Sandton offices. Is this a correct analysis?

Anneleigh: I think there is definitely a tension within companies between those who care about the consumer and those who see them simply as a column on the corporate spreadsheet, but I think the ultimate tension is between the Execs and the actual consumers who have very little if any direct engagement, but who affect each others’ lives so profoundly. I wish the consumers had more of a direct voice in boardrooms and on Boards of Directors, or that at the very least advocates in those arenas who are not afraid to call out the greed, the self-involvement, and all the ethically appalling and even illegal things that happen in those rooms, to come back round to that very damning and I think, sadly, very accurate quote from Prof. Bond at The Wits School of Governance.  I’m willing to be that person, if any Boards are brave enough to hire me!

Izak: We started the interview with a Bond. You created a rather suave Englishman for this novel. On which shelf did you find him?

Anneleigh: Ah, Johnny English! He is very suave and I think for me he was the embodiment of a wide range of expat and international managers who more often than not are in the country for under five years and are never really part of the fabric of it. I may have dealt a bit harshly with him, but he is also a representative of those often quite senior managers that find themselves caught up in the greed and corruption either tangentially or having made a series of small compromises and only later really facing up to the implications of who they have become and which side of the scale they actually fall on. I think often people don’t intend to be evil, they just go along with things and get stuck. I hope that people inside these companies read Johnny English as a warning to pay more attention to their day-to-day compromises so that they don’t end up holding the bag, as it were, or even just making choices that don’t align with their values anymore.

Yes!!

Izak: Corporation Games is a jolly nice, tight thriller. We won’t give the game away, but there is a rather smooth investigator involved as well. Not so?

Anneleigh: Very smooth indeed! I do really wish I could have brought him into the limelight earlier, he is such a fascinating character whom I had developed much further than what ended up in the book. Alas, I felt he would give away the plot too soon, such a pity.

A marketing maestro with a keen sense of justice

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