Athol Williams (South Africa)

Athol Williams

Williams’ disclosures about US-based consultancy Bain & Co formed a central plank of the Zondo Commission’s investigations

Athol Williams was a business strategy advisor and lecturer in business ethics at the University of Cape Town when he blew the whistle on unethical and potentially corrupt practices by US-based consultancy Bain & Company in South Africa.

Williams had had a long history with the consultancy, which he had worked for on five separate occasions. In 2010 he had resigned from Bain due to reservations about the management style of the new head of Bain’s South African operation Vittorio Massone – but he had stayed on friendly terms with many of his former colleagues and felt a residual sense of loyalty towards the company.

By 2018, Bain was embroiled in controversy over its relationship with the South African Revenue Service (SARS), whose Commissioner had a close association with the consultancy. An independent judicial inquiry had found numerous governance failures at SARS, recommended that the Commissioner be replaced and concluded that Bain & Co was not forthcoming with information.

The company came to Athol – who not only knew the company well, but understood South Africa and corporate ethics – to oversee an investigation into the allegations by an external law firm Bain had appointed, and to help implement remedial action.

The experience was a frustrating one for Williams, who was prevented from seeing the results of the investigation he was supposed to oversee. It transpired that Bain & Co were more concerned about the prospect of investigation from the US Department of Justice than anything happening in South Africa. Evidence that had been sent to Williams, at his personal email address, went unexamined because he did not have the lawyers’ report he was supposed to assess. In his own report, submitted at the end of the year, he felt obliged to say that Bain had not been open and transparent.

In a move that surprised some, Williams agreed to come back and work for Bain in 2019 to implement a corporate remediation programme. In that role, he made public appearances on behalf of the company and encountered first hand the anger directed at it. Within a few months, however, he had come to realise he was being taken advantage of (“I felt I was being compromised

by remaining there”) and in October 2019 he announced his resignation after publicly accusing Bain of trying to cover up their wrongdoing.

It was at this point that Williams finally examined the evidence that he had been sent in 2018 and realised that Bain’s involvement in state capture had been worse than he had realised – the consultancy was in fact involved in the compromise of South Africa’s public institutions at a strategic level. Shortly after leaving Bain & Co, Athol Williams approached the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture with what he knew and the documents that were in his possession.

In March 2021, Williams appeared before the Zondo Commission to testify that Bain had forged a secretive personal relationship with the then president, Jacob Zuma. The consultancy seemed to have facilitated Zuma’s desire for greater access to resources and centralised power over the organs of the South African state. Bain & Co had entered dubious contractual relationships with individuals close to Zuma and formed close relationships with CEOs of state owned enterprises before they were appointed to their posts.

Williams provided evidence to the Zondo Commission that Bain had masterminded what turned out to be a highly destructive restructuring plan for the revenue service that led to an exodus of skilled senior officials, depriving the South African state of revenue and weakening its ability to fight corruption. He also provided documents outlining how Bain proposed reshaping other sectors of the South African economy, including energy, telecoms and infrastructure.

State capture of SARS was one of the issues examined by the Zondo Commission in its first report published on 4 January 2022. Of all the witnesses who testified about the revenue service, the Zondo commission singled out Williams in its appreciation for the evidence he presented, and for rejecting “numerous attempts from Bain & Co to give him large sums of money in return for his silence”.

After testifying, Williams asked in vain for state protection, believing his life was in danger because he had stepped on many powerful toes. After the 2021 assassination of whistleblower Babita Deokaran, the whistleblower community in South Africa warned Williams he could be next. Fearing for his life, he left his family behind and fled the country.

Williams has written that “companies involved in wrongdoing should be blacklisted until they make amends.” Bain & Co’s operation in South Africa continues, although the consulting firm has been banned from competing for public sector contracts for a decade.

The international importance of both Williams’ whistleblowing and the Zondo Report is reflected in the fact that the company has also been banned from seeking government contracts in the UK for three years.

Williams now lives in exile while continuing to speak out against corruption in South Africa and demanding those responsible be held accountable.

Congratulations to Athol Williams, winner of the 2022 Blueprint for Free Speech Special Recognition Award.

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