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Magda Wierzycka should mind her own dirty laundry before launching dirty tricks

Magda Wierzycka stunned the asset management community by applying one of the most underhand of marketing tricks in the book: Spin and Smear. Photo: David Ritchie African News Agency (ANA)

Magda Wierzycka stunned the asset management community by applying one of the most underhand of marketing tricks in the book: Spin and Smear. Photo: David Ritchie African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 18, 2020


CAPE TOWN – I first became aware of the existence of Magda Wierzycka when her company, Sygnia, listed on the JSE late in 2015. With the financial markets in dire straits and commodities at an all-time low in early 2016, the Sygnia share price at variance to what was happening on the market seemed otherworldly and something to laud.  Although experiencing a small dip, it went on a run to reach R22 in April 2016. The market was suitably impressed and amazed.

As a result of this excellent performance, we became acutely aware of the woman at the helm of this organisation, Magda Wierzycka, a beacon of light in an otherwise, grey world. Not only did her stellar results grab our attention, her articles for the Daily Maverick were also great reading – mostly at that time, attacking the Zuma regime and drawing parallels with her experience in Poland. She is an excellent writer and, I will openly admit, I eagerly read all of her articles.

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Then Steinhoff happened in December 2017. By then, the Sygnia share price had halved with Sygnia no longer enjoying its previous successes. Up to that point in December 2017, I considered her a respected and highly regarded market commentator and writer and had the utmost respect for her views and opinions.

Then Magda stunned the asset management community by applying one of the most underhand of marketing tricks in the book: Spin and Smear. Stain the reputation of your opponents to portray yourself as the knight in shining armour and create a positive brand for your product. Emotionally exploit the public and use your media exposure to shape a particular narrative for your own gain. Being a hitherto pillar of moral standing, it becomes relatively easy to sway opinion and cast shadows.  No proof is needed as someone of stature could hardly be dishonest, could they?

Spin and smear can also serve to distract and deflect unwanted questions and attention, and hindsight being the perfect science it is, we now wonder what precisely was going on in the corridors and passages of Sygnia…

At the inception of her smear campaigning,  Magda was highly regarded across the country, and everyone (except most in the asset management industry) sat up straight and took notice of her pronouncements.  It stands to reason that she would gain favour, as which investor would not like to hear statements such as: “payback investors’ money” and “the whole industry overcharges investors”. These phrases are classic neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) message playback techniques. 

On top of grand sweeping statements, Miss Magda openly used one of the biggest business disasters South Africa has ever seen, (and still intensely feels), to unashamedly cash in on the opportunity to market her products. Throwing everyone else under the bus in the process was no problem. As long as she could benefit.

They say desperate times call for desperate measures, so the question that sprang to mind, was whether Sygnia was facing some strain and needed to go on the offensive to draw in new clients, or simply if this was just Magda’s nature reverting to type?

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We will probably never know for sure, but evidence of her desperation and despot-like behaviour was shown in incidents such as the company auditors walking away and high-level directors, as well as her attempted extortion case (still open). 

The criminal case of extortion

Media24 reported in December 2018 that JSE-listed African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited (AEEI) and its CEO at the time, Khalid Abdulla, had laid a complaint of attempted extortion at the Table Bay Police Station, against Magda in December 2018. According to a statement issued by AEEI at the time, this followed Wierzycka allegedly having approached Abdulla to buy back the shares that AEEI, its majority shareholder Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and Abdulla, have in Sygnia, and "at a substantially lower price". "Failing this, she threatened to continue to write negative stories about Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, AEEI and its associated company, AYO Technology Solutions”. Collectively, the entities own approximately 3.5 million shares in Sygnia.

According to Abdulla, AEEI's legal counsel advised that: "as a responsible corporate citizen and in terms of South African law, we are obliged to report such actions to the police". He said evidence handed to the police included text messages and emails.

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Given that Wierzycka has subsequently issued a slew of slanderous articles in this regard, it can be reasonably presumed she has followed through on her threat. 

Of note, is that the Sekunjalo Group is one of the biggest outside shareholders in Sygnia and the largest black shareholder in Sygnia. At the time of the alleged attempted extortion, the undue benefit to Wierzycka would have amounted to multiple millions of rand.

‘Donating’ shares to her husband

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Another incident that raises the red flag around Wierzycka’s machinations and seemingly unfolding web,  was gifting her husband more than R215 million in shares, Business Insider reported late last year:

“Sygnia chief executive officer Magda Wierzycka gave her husband, Simon Peile more than R215 million worth of shares. In a Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) announcement, Sygnia said Wierzycka donated 22,691,332 shares worth R215,567,654 to Peile. The share dealings referred to above represent a restructuring of their personal interests in Sygnia,” the company said.  Wierzycka didn’t want to comment at the time. Cape Town-based Sygnia did not want to answer questions about the transaction”.

Should Wierzycka still lead Sygnia?

Given that Wierzycka has had a criminal case of extortion taken out against her, I am wondering whether she should continue to lead the company?  Extortion is far worse than insider trading and far worse than any of the alleged doings, she has accused any number of people and businesses of.   

Is the mud she threw with such abandon, now sticking to her?

I haven’t seen any article under her byline in Business Day recently as she appears to be using the Daily Maverick to help her continue the charade of citizen and business champion.  Incidentally, Magda is a well-known sponsor of the media platform…doesn’t exactly make for objective unbiased reading then does it?

But given the shift in the way the world works, the awakening of even the ordinary man and woman now has the ability to see past the smoke and mirrors that have been used to persuade them in the past.

I think it is high time for those who peddle one image in public but who in reality, speak with a forked-tongue, and those who profess to care about their adoptive countries but who in actuality, have set up shop out of the country and who are secured from the economic fallout of Covid-19, to be quiet. Distraction tactics no longer have a place in the world. 

I reiterate what I wrote last week, don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.


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