Athol Williams op-ed: Bain’s ‘true ethical nature on display’

The opinion piece you’re about to read reminds me somewhat of that old adage: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. I think it’s safe to say the relationship – if that’s even the correct term anymore – between whistle-blower Athol Williams and his former employer Bain and Company, has now reached a point at which something has to give. There is a certain sense of irony behind Bain calling on Williams, who remains in hiding after fleeing SA in November 2021, to stop endangering the lives of its employees with his social media posts. Williams’ experience, after lifting the lid on the unscrupulous consultancy firm’s time at our revenue service SARS, is a tragic cautionary tale about just how career-limiting, not to mention downright dangerous, it is to expose public or private sector graft in this country. – Michael Appel

By Athol Williams*

A day after Lord Peter Hain’s UK parliament speech exposed Bain & Co for its “shamefully shady behaviour” and “scandalous collusion” with Jacob Zuma, I received a peculiar letter from Bain, which I later discovered was also posted on its website and widely distributed. This was just two days after reports that the UK Government was investigating Bain’s business and that the White House had been approached to do the same.

The letter from Russ Hagey, a member of Bain’s top global leadership, was not to finally agree to make full disclosure of their “unlawful role” at SARS, as the Zondo Commission concluded, or their questionable involvement across South Africa’s state institutions, but to inform me that they had reported certain of my social media posts. The posts in question name Bain’s SA leaders, by which, Mr Hagey claims, I am “directly endangering their personal safety”. I replied immediately, stating:

I would not want to put anyones life at risk. The part of your letter that carried force was the appeal to “do the right and ethical thing”. I accept this as a principle by which to assess or guide action, and I assume the same goes for you otherwise you would not have appealed to it. If Ive crossed the line on right and ethical action, then I want to rectify that. Are you willing to do the same?

To which Mr Hagey replied:

I am specifically concerned about the safety of our people and you have put them at risk so I do want you to rectify that and take down the posts. 

I had already taken down the posts by the time this reply arrived, but it was apparent to me that there was a double-standard at play, so replied:

So, doing the right and ethical thing doesnt apply to you or Bain?

I received no reply.

This exchange provides a clear window into the true ethical nature of Bain’s leadership: that they see themselves as exempt from ethical accountability, even as they preach ethics to others. This is the same forked-tongue way Bain has dealt with South Africa from the outset … talk about the high moral ground but walk the moral gutter. This is the same company that Business Leadership SA defends and that Sasol is currently doing business with.
Bain’s letter repeats their deceptive language about “mistakes” when both the Nugent and Zondo Commissions concluded their role in the damage to SARS was premeditated. What Bain calls “mistakes”, the Zondo report calls “collusion … to get around the procurement process”. Did they mistakenly take R2 billion in fees?

So, what was in my social media posts? Following the Zondo report’s recommendation that all Bain’s public sector contracts be re-examined with a view to prosecution, and the launch of the SIU investigation into Bain’s work at Telkom, it was apparent that the campaign to hold Bain and its leaders accountable was progressing. I created a post with screenshots from Bain’s website of two partners beneath the words, “The South Africans behind Bain in SA” and wrote “No more hiding”. In another post, I simply included the partners’ names and wrote, “These are Bain & Co’s leaders in South Africa … Time for them to be exposed and be held accountable for state capture and corruption.” I made no threats and did not encourage any violence. The posts form part of my 2+ year effort to hold Bain accountable for colluding to undermine our democratic institutions. Is this not what all South Africans want?

However, Mr Hagey asserts these posts place his colleagues at risk. It is right for him to look out for the wellbeing of his colleagues but there’s more here than meets the eye. Even so, I took down the posts immediately after receiving Mr Hagey’s letter, not because their purpose of accountability had been satisfied, but because even if the smallest chance existed of my posts harming anyone, I wanted them removed. That is what “right and ethical” behaviour entails, something Mr Hagey and Bain have consistently demonstrated an unwillingness to commit to.

A few more points on the Bain letter. First, the people named in my posts were not junior staff but partners. Who are we to hold accountable if not the leaders of Bain?

Second, the leaders of Bain SA are not as removed from Bain’s transgressions as Mr Hagey makes out as evidence before the Zondo Commission showed. At least two of the current partners, including one who was personally mentored by Vittorio Massone, were involved in or had direct knowledge of irregular procurement processes at state institutions other than SARS. As I’ve written and said many times, Bain wants SA to focus on SARS as a way of deflecting from what they did elsewhere, such as at Telkom, the PIC and Eskom.

By their knowing silence, every leader in Bain’s business in SA, and many around the globe, are involved in the cover up. They know Bain is withholding vast amounts of information relevant to our country’s pursuit of truth and justice but are part of the effort to hide it or even deny its existence.

Third, rather than my posts, it is Bain’s own antagonistic behaviour towards our country that exposes their people to danger. South Africans are already angry because of Bain’s central role in state capture, their  “unlawful” behaviour and their “heinous crimes” as described by the president of BUSA. Their continued efforts to evade accountability is angering South Africans further, and rightly so. Aware of the danger this anger poses, Mr Hagey seeks to deflect to me as its source.

Lastly, but most importantly, state capture has diverted public resources to private pockets like those of the Guptas and the very people Bain wants to keep out of the public eye. Given Bain’s central involvement in state capture, Bain has put the lives of millions of South Africans at risk, particularly the poor and vulnerable. Nowhere does Mr Hagey, or anyone at Bain, express concern for the lives threatened by their actions. Surely the lives of ordinary South Africans matter as much as that of Bain’s millionaire partners.

Bain wants to be free to amass wealth by alleged irregular means from our state institutions and then be left alone to quietly enjoy their spoils. Justice demands that we not allow this. These individuals have a choice: to remain silent and keep enjoying the spoils of state capture or speak up for the good of our country. They have this choice every day.

Surely “the right and ethical thing” for Bain to do is stop the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, which burdens their already stretched resources, and come fully clean so that justice can progress. As shown above, when invited to commit to the very ethical principle he preaches, Mr Hagey goes silent. This is all we really need to know about Bain’s ethics and attitude to SA.

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