Cape Times

We cannot send a message that we embrace corruption

BLSA’s decision to endorse Bain comes as a shock and must be reversed

- ATHOL WILLIAMS Williams is a former partner at Bain. He blew the whistle on Bain and testified at the Zondo Commission in 2021. He is the chief executive of the Institute of Social and Corporate Ethics.

THERE is growing distrust of business globally and here in South Africa, particular­ly of large corporatio­ns, who by their economic power also wield political power.

This distrust is exacerbate­d when business acts as though divorced from society, seemingly in ways that go counter to the good of broader society. While South Africa is reeling from the effects of corruption and state capture, we would expect that the business sector would boost its efforts to resist these evils and unite with the rest of society to hold perpetrato­rs accountabl­e.

This is why the decision by the board of Business Leadership SA (BLSA) to endorse one of the primary actors of state capture, Bain & Company, is such a shock. BLSA is a powerful associatio­n of the largest corporatio­ns in the country, led by the chief executives of these corporatio­ns.

When BLSA suspended Bain in 2018 over its role in the near collapse of the SA Revenue Service (Sars), it sent a strong message that it would stand by its word to ensure that corruption and state capture were “rooted out, crushed and punished”. It was a powerful signal that business stood on the side of ordinary South Africans who abhorred the destructiv­e hollowing out of our public institutio­ns and the blatant looting of our public funds.

BLSA chastised Bain for the unwarrante­d and destructiv­e restructur­ing of Sars that “will continue to have long-term devastatin­g effects not only on Sars, but the country as a whole”, according to its statement at the time.

As I testified before the Zondo Commission in March this year, Bain had infiltrate­d the Zuma camp and had wormed its way into numerous state-owned enterprise­s and government agencies. Its role in state capture stretches way beyond Sars, even into the ruling party through its work on the 2014 ANC manifesto.

Yet, the most influentia­l business associatio­n in our country has now endorsed them to roam freely across our society as before. One view is that BLSA has departed from its strong anti-corruption stance to endorse Bain’s behaviour, but this would be unthinkabl­e. The other explanatio­n could be that Bain has demonstrat­ed to BLSA that it has met reasonable criteria to be welcomed back into our society.

What do the facts say? In its various statements relating to Bain, BLSA mentioned five criteria that Bain should meet, namely, (1) Bain must conduct an independen­t investigat­ion into its devastatio­n at Sars, (2) it must make full disclosure of its findings, (3) it must co-operate fully with authoritie­s, (4) it must deal decisively with staff who were involved, and (5) it must make proportion­ate amends for harm caused.

These are reasonable criteria by which to decide to endorse any organisati­on after wrongdoing. The problem in this case is that Bain has fulfilled none of these criteria. Bain’s investigat­ion was anything but independen­t because it was conducted by Baker McKenzie, who are Bain’s lawyers and were advising them during the investigat­ion. Bain has refused to disclose the findings of the Baker McKenzie investigat­ion, even refusing to submit these findings to the Nugent Commission that was investigat­ing Sars.

When the Zondo Commission invited Bain to present witnesses, it refused, yet wanted to cross-examine me. Bain certainly did not deal decisively with anyone involved in state capture; in fact, no one was fired. It took Bain three months to negotiate a settlement with their former head in South Africa – hardly decisive. The company then arranged for all the other senior people in South Africa to be shuttled out of the country to enjoy the spoils they had amassed.

As for amends, Bain has repaid the fees it earned from Sars, and nothing else. Are we really expected to accept that this makes proportion­ate amends for the “long-term devastatin­g effects not only on Sars but the country as a whole”, as BLSA themselves described Bain’s impact?

That Bain has failed to meet any of these reasonable criteria raises serious

questions over the grounds for BLSA’s decision. Our society is beset with inaction over grave social ills, where statements of ethics and integrity are commonplac­e, but follow-through absent. Rather than silently legitimise Bain through the back door, BLSA owes it to South Africa to explain why it ignored its own criteria to endorse Bain.

For the good of our country, BLSA should stand by its claims of wanting to “root out, crush and punish” state capture by reversing its decision and demand that Bain fulfils the five criteria outlined above.

It would be tragic to allow this situation to fan the flames of distrust at a time when restoring trust is crucial. We cannot afford to send a message to the world that we are simply paying lip service to stamping out corruption, that we embrace the corrupt, even those who act to weaken our democracy.

 ?? | ITUMELENG ENGLISH African News Agency (ANA) ?? ATHOL Williams appears before the Commission of Inquiry into Allegation­s of State Capture led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, to testify against Bain & Company.
| ITUMELENG ENGLISH African News Agency (ANA) ATHOL Williams appears before the Commission of Inquiry into Allegation­s of State Capture led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, to testify against Bain & Company.
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