CAPE TOWN - 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 CEOs of these corporations. When BLSA suspended Bain in 2018 over its role in the near collapse of Sars, it sent a strong message that it would stand by its word to ensure that corruption and state capture are “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 of 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 have 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 have refused to disclose the findings of the Baker McKenzie investigation, even refusing to submit these findings to the Nugent Commission who 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.
Athol Williams is a former partner at Bain. He blew the whistle on Bain and testified at the Zondo Commission in 2021. He is the CEO of the Institute of Social and Corporate Ethics.