In businesses today, there are more of shortcuts towards fast gain, than long term achievements. It used to be said, "The winner takes it all", but now, privileged losers take the prizes, too. The customer or client used to be the king, now it is the owner who rules, for his gains. Traditionally, corporate governance was about struggles between shareholders and directors.
Recent publicised events at Interfin Banking Corporation suggest a struggle between shareholders of the group and clients, depositors' funds, corporate reputation and sustainability. There were no agency problems, since controlling shareholders chaired the boards, of both, Interfin Financial Services and Interfin Bank.
Interest rates charged by Interfin, as reported in different media, ranged from zero to 1 080 percent per annum and varied with customers. In most reports we see the shareholder, Mr Farai Rwodzi and those around him benefiting. We also see struggling and high risk companies, such as Lobels Bread, having to pay a whopping 1 080 percent in loan interest and just being dissipated from business, altogether. Obviously, Interfin capitalised on the current liquidity crunch, and in the process, provided a shortcut, towards quick and easy money for the owners.
The Interfin happenings exposed systematic disrespect for depositors' funds, while a few privileged, enjoyed low cost loan benefits. Reports also state that Interfin Banking Corporation had a concentrated shareholding, where three shareholders owned almost 55 percent through various investment channels. At the same time, there was lack of board independence, due to the presence of major shareholders on the group's boards of directors.
Unlike other corporate scandals, where directors and executives fail shareholders, at Interfin we see shareholders failing themselves, their clients, the banking system and the nation.
Regulation and Supervision is meant for the normal sector, which is the majority. Laws and regulations will not work, to force constraints on the few, who intentionally "play" the system, or those who force their way into what used to be illegal, forbidden or frowned on policies and business practices.
Armed with arrogance of might, greed, cronyism and false wealth benchmarks, actors are making the banking system in Zimbabwe, abnormal. We see abnormal banking systems based on "cash cow" principles, milking the poor until they bleed. So busy are the few elite, looting, that they cannot even stop to see that the milk they are carrying is now tainted with depositors' blood. Banking services have long stopped being about the majority of clients, but, for a few privileged elite.
When individual shareholders decide that their wants exceed what is offered, they embark on gratifying wants, which ignore ethics. They apply principles and business practices not generally accepted, ignore restraint exercised by the majority, and work to deprive others of their natural rights, simply because they can, and then systems fail.
Policies and business practices that are designed to circumvent the law, ethical and moral standards, while also failing to provide reasonable welfare to society, are ungovernable. Sound corporate governance standards; assume that shareholders establish businesses to service markets, as well as provide welfare of society and that they will adhere to basic rules of the game.
The Securities Exchange Commission reported that the agency agreement between Interfin Securities and Interfin Banking Corporation was fraudulent, by design. The deliberate efforts to conceal this fraudulent agreement from the Regulator, was in itself evidence that policies and business practices between the two entities, were designed to circumvent the law, ethical and moral standards. Does corporate governance have to mimic the wider business environment, economic and political governance?
Zimbabwe's economic markets and society tolerate corrupt behaviour of individual shareholders. There has not been clear demonstration of disapproval or effective recourse to law, by affected parties. Legal and ethical behaviours are not rewarded as handsomely as greed, fraudulent, corrupt, unethical or immoral ones. This is the tragedy of governance. Society seems to now believe that such behaviour is acceptable, some even thinking that if they had the opportunity, they would behave in the same way.
Society in Zimbabwe condones fraudulent shareholder behaviours, by blaming instead, the wider business environment, economic and political systems. Rather than being vessels of change, we see tendencies, by individuals and corporations, to perpetuate economic and governance challenges. Banks in the country have been falling since the days of United Merchant Bank in the 1990s. What has the banking society learnt from these failures? Society has watched individuals walk away with trophies from failed banking corporations, over and over again, and they ask, "Who wants to be a winner, when privileged losers get prizes too?" This cultural anomaly should also be tackled, along with the correction of corporate governance.
Mr Rwodzi owns many companies. Multi -company shareholdings subject wider networks of companies to behaviours of an individual shareholder. It also exerts pressure on companies, as each is used to bail out the others, in the interest of the common shareholder. There is a total disconnect between behaviours of individual shareholders, such as reported in the Interfin financial services group, and the essence of black empowerment. Empowerment of indigenous people seems to be misunderstood, to mean making maximum individual gains, within the shortest period of time and never mind the human cost.
It is uncomfortable to watch black owned businesses fail due to indifference to law, ethics and moral standards. Even more difficult, is to see professionals embark on what "Musika" traders, did not have to go to higher institutions to learn, haggling. While negotiations are good for business, institutions trading on the Stock Exchange are expected to maintain reasonable and consistent standards, not to hair split every transaction, so as to make maximum gains. If it is not about personal gains, how does Zimbabwe explain the ever increasing number of luxury cars in an economy, struggling to pay salaries? Creation of wealth should be about, providing services for a wider market and welfare of the society.
This brings the whole debate to ideological views, which some Zimbabweans loathe or are afraid discuss. Put simply, black empowerment is not founded on capitalism. It is a mechanism to reduce inequalities created by an unjust system, colonialism. Tendencies towards individualist capitalism are a perpetuation of those inequalities.
This, in turn, attracts resentment not just by the people, but by the systems, as well, due to contradictions between policies and practices. Such resentment bears some resemblance to the hostility towards profiteers after the First World War, which drove Keynes to remark: "To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism, because it destroys the psychological equilibrium which permits perpetuation of unequal rewards. The businessman is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society initiative."
The bible provides another ideological perspective towards ownership and stewardship. Any wealth created for selfish gains, without regard to society is an abomination to the Creator. While it is true that there shall always be the poor among us, it is totally wrong to put in place, a system, which deliberately pushes the majority towards poverty. The Laws of the Universe which regulate the Divine Economy are very clear and simple; we receive only that which we give.
You give out financial hardships, automatically, you receive exactly that, financial hardships. You give out civilised banking business practices; you receive exactly that, a reputation of good banking practices.
Yet, many of the black business owners in Zimbabwe choose to forget that somewhere, sometime, someone gave them a lift or an idea that started them in the right direction. It is worth remembering that until we help some less fortunate person just as you were once helped, we remain indebted to life. Successful life, by design requires us to always lend a helping hand. Charging a 1 080 percent loan interest on a crippled business is far from lending a helping hand.
So, the lesson for the empowerment policy makers is to avoid creating multi-company ownerships, by individuals, just as the land redistribution exercise opposes multi-farm ownerships.
Allow the system to spread wealth to a wider spectrum of the society, and then we dilute ownership concentrations and unruly behaviours.
Multi-company ownerships and lack of accountability by shareholders at Interfin, presented numerous opportunities to the owners to exercise business practices which disregarded the law, ethics and reasonable moral standards.
There is a misconception about accountability, and it is that, accountability results in limitation of power. To the contrary, accountability helps to tame the "animal spirit" in all of us, which really is the culprit and major cause for failure. In deliberately establishing accountability lines and relations, one actually protects themselves from failure. It is the accountability of personalities within a business, which determine the measure of success to be enjoyed by a business.
The rising culture of reaping where one has not sown, spending more than one earns, getting rich quickly and putting a dollar value to everything, has ripped morality from individuals.
Whoever comes out holding the highest dollar value, in the fastest of time, spends it on trendiest goods is the one who walks away with a success prize, per Zimbabwean standards. It is these individuals who are regarded as the captains of industry. Sad to say that our industries and businesses under such captaincy, pitted against globalization and competition from China, Europe and the region, will not stand.
Sound corporate governance is always about finding and maintaining a reasonable balance, between creation of wealth, service and welfare of the society. Creation of wealth is larger than individual gains. Napoleon Hill says that no man has a chance to enjoy permanent success, until he begins to look in a mirror for the real cause of all his mistakes.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in governance