After a 15-year association with Bain & Company, working in their Boston, New York, London and Johannesburg offices, I left the firm in 2010. I was saddened to hear that the firm had allegedly been caught up in the Commission of Inquiry’s review of SARS, because I know that Bain globally had pushed to maintain high professional and ethical standards. That this may not have been the case in South Africa grieved me.
Watching Bain’s testimony to the Commission in August left me angry and disappointed. I expressed this to Bain’s senior leaders and to the media.
Soon Bain reached out to me for help. I was also contacted by the Commission, led by Judge Robert Nugent, to see whether I could assist it to establish the truth, which I was willing to do given my knowledge of management consulting and my expertise in the ethical challenges that businesses face.
In an unprecedented move of transparency, Bain invited me into their business with unfettered access and the freedom to reveal anything to the Commission that I saw fit, without restriction. I remain in this role and will continue until the end of November when the Commission submits its final report.
Judge Nugent has expressed to me what he considers to be Bain’s lack of co-operation with his inquiry. The Judge has occasionally urged me to remind Bain that he would not tolerate what he termed their “obfuscation” and “evasion”.
Bain would argue that they voluntarily submitted themselves to scrutiny by the Commission, that they have responded timeously to every information request, even offering the Commission open access to their offices.
By this narrow definition of co-operation, Bain may rightly claim to have been co-operating. But the Commission has a broader, almost simpler requirement. It simply wants to know everything that Bain knows about what transpired at SARS. The Commission wants the full truth to be reported proactively, which Judge Nugent has told me he considers Bain’s managing partner not to have done when he gave evidence, and which he considers Bain not to have done since.
From my “outsider-insider” view I have seen Bain awake to this realisation, albeit slower than everyone expected. Bain has engaged outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation, and I am helping to oversee this review.
The investigation now has a scope more reflective of what the Commission and South Africa demand to know. These results will be reported in due course, at which point I hope to be able to express my view to the Commission that Bain has reached the point of full co-operation, by the Commission’s standard, not Bain’s, though I appreciate that it will be for the Commission to decide whether it shares my view.
The reaction by South Africans to what we have learned about Bain’s actions has left us rightly angry. We are all sick and tired of the injustices that have plagued our society for too long, and we are sick and tired of us bearing the cost while the perpetrators escape without consequences. Understandably some of this anger is now directed at Bain.
So what do we want from Bain?
Nothing short of acknowledgement of wrongdoing, an apology, some forms of reparation and change of behaviour, will be acceptable to South Africans, if Bain hopes to redeem itself in our country.
What we should avoid, however, is allowing our anger to overflow into the violence of wanting to see the business destroyed. I believe that South Africa can continue to benefit from Bain’s expertise, and that we have an opportunity to harness their capabilities for our benefit. This will be the ultimate test of Bain’s commitment to recovery, whether they will invest in South Africa in ways they have not done to date.
There can be little doubt that there were failures in Bain’s SARS work, something that will need to be addressed with urgency. Some acted wrongly. Others might have looked the other way when instead they should have spoken up. This will be revealed through the investigation and the wrongdoers must be punished.
However, it is not fair to paint everyone at Bain with the same brush. There are many young South Africans there, starting out their careers, who are doing high quality, honest work. There are many foreign professionals who came here with the sincere intention of sharing their expertise and wanting to see South Africa prosper. We would do well to continue to offer a platform for these people to thrive.
South Africa demands something extraordinary of Bain right now. Out of the devastating experience of this disaster must emerge a company of which all South Africans and Bain globally can be proud. The ball is in Bain’s court. DM
Athol Williams is Senior Lecturer, Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, UCT GSB
The fur of a Chinchilla is so thick it will suffocate fleas.
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