South Africa is in a moral crisis, and doing something about it will take courage, says Athol Williams.
Poet, author and strategist Athol Williams delivered a strong message to finance professionals during his keynote address on the second day of the 2019 Finance Indaba in Sandton. He challenged the audience to consider what they could do in their own situations to stem the tide of corruption.
“I believe we’re in a moral moment, a moral crisis and that requires some very serious action and response from finance professionals,” he said. Referring to companies implicated in state capture, he asked the audience, “If you worked for one of those companies, what would you do? What have you been doing? Some of us do work at those companies, or for companies where similar things are happening, and we need to think about what we are doing about what’s going on around us.”
Athol made the point that most people would consider themselves ethical because they are not perpetrating wrongful acts.
“We’re not scheming to swindle customers or cook the books. The problem is, there are other ways we can be unethical. These could be as collaborator, bystander or the beneficiary of wrongful acts. You don’t have to be a perpetrator.”
Athol acknowledged that the stakes were high, that to stand up and speak out against corruption wasn’t easy, or without costs. “It’s uncomfortable to sit in the boardroom or exco meeting and speak up,” he said. “Most of us are prepared to do the right thing until our bonus is at stake, our career prospects, our job, our family’s livelihood. Other people might lose jobs. Some might even have their lives threatened.
“There’s also self-doubt in play – who am I to judge what’s right or wrong? We tell ourselves that every company is doing some of this dodgy stuff. In many ways, inaction is understandable and even reasonable.”
He argued, however, that what was happening in South Africa, was precisely because so many people are acting in an understandable, reasonable way.
Athol drew on his own experience at Bain & Co., speaking publicly for the first time about this recent return to the company after having left his position as a partner there in 2010. Many, he said, had questioned why he’d chosen to rejoin a company when it was being accused of masterminding the destruction of Sars.
As the Nugent Commission investigated, Athol was intricately involved with helping Judge Nugent to get to the bottom of what had transpired at Bain, and returned to the company thereafter, first as an advisor, and later as a partner.
“I believe the criminal justice system should continue,” Athol explained, “but that’s not enough. Companies need to make amends for harm they caused, and I decided to put my credibility on the line to help them to do that.”
What he got for “running towards the fire” was major pushback. He was called morally bankrupt, some asked how they could take him seriously as an academic lecturing about ethics, some said he shouldn’t be given a public platform to talk about governance, and one person suggested he should be jailed.
“People threatened me or refused to take my meetings, and the entire remedy plan fell flat because no one would engage with me. Public officials pointed me out as the face of corruption in corporate South Africa.”
All of which is why, said Athol, he understands why most people don’t want to stand up and speak out. “Why would you, if this is going to be your experience of trying to do the right thing?”
He suggested that there were a few things finance professionals could do to ensure that whistle-blowers felt supported when they spoke up, and to create a platform for more people to stand up for good ethics in business:
1. Co-ordinate, instead of sitting alone at your desk wondering what to do. Professional bodies could provide a safe space for whistle-blowers, for example, and finance managers could co-ordinate internally.
2. Ensure you know where whistle-blower reports go to in your organisation, so that they go to an independent person – not the person committing the crime.
3. Investigate how the follow-up is tracked and what happens after an initial report is filed.
4. Provide support for whistle-blowers, who often put their entire personal and professional lives at risk in speaking out.
He also announced his resignation from Bain & Co. to the Finance Indaba audience, saying he was leaving for two reasons – the danger and pressure he was facing, as well as his belief that the organisation was still withholding, and “by my measure of full revelation, not doing what they need to do for South Africa”.
“Unco-ordinated, self-interested acts are what keep corruption going. Do this for the sake of what’s right for our country. We have to be co-ordinated and selfless. What are you going to do?”