Author: Athol Williams
Title: Deep Collusion
Publishers: Tafelberg (2021)
Out of breath, pebbles of sweat rolling down my weary spine; here we are climbing up the monumental staircase of Ernst and Young building in Sandton Central, Johannesburg. I turn to look at then girlfriend-now wife, to seek comfort in the reasons why we have put ourselves in this urban expedition. Is it for the love of poetry or the unspoken admiration for the man? It is 2016 and we are here for the launch of Bumper Cars, a poetry collection by Athol Williams. Today however as we sit drained by Zondo Commission Inquiry images, we wonder if there will be any poetic justice at the end of this state capture saga. In this recent epic offering- Deep Collusion, one can only empathize with how many mountains of criticism and skepticism Williams had to climb particularly after coming out as a whistleblower in 2020. This mammoth task of standing by ethical principles has led this academic giant to foreign cold lands as a precautionary step for his safety. But what exactly is the big hype that sits at peak of this twenty-five-bite-size-chapter book.
What is the book about?
Deep Collusion is an insider’s account of how the collusion between global management consulting company- Bain and Company and former President Jacob Zuma and his croniesincluding Gupta associates led to the callous damage of the South African Revenue Services (SARS) and other state institutions such as Telkom. Taking off from his seven hundred-page affidavit submitted to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry in 2021, we patiently hike with the author on this voyage to discover that this collusion entailed crooked procurement processes and supported the wholesale restructuring of public institutions for private gain. For instance, from January 2015 to March 2017, the author reveals that Bain completed three phases of consulting work at SARS that saw the global consultancy pocket R164 million through irregular tender processes. The book further indicates there were two hundred experienced managers who left SARS and those remaining drowning in low morale due to the toxic workplace culture that Bain and Zuma’s actors created. In essence, the book shows how foreign consultancy companies target vulnerable less-developed countries and then engage in deep collusion with corrupt government officials to milk the state resources. Similar to walking on a minefield every chapter is explosive. Some of the bombshell revelations had me picking up my jaw from my living room floor multiple times. I haven’t made so many F-words and “liars” comments on the page margins since Mosilo Mothepu’s Uncaptured (2021). However what makes Deep Collusion different from other books on state capture is the core argument that a global consultancy firm had a premeditated grand plan to not only loot state resources but restructure the entire country’s economy, which the author likens to a silent “coup”. If this grand plan was fully implemented “what Zuma
was planning could have dwarfed the institutional damage and looting that we have seen to date” states the author
This book reads like a thriller novel by Deon Meyer, filled with plot twists, protagonists and antagonists. Apart from secondary actors such as banks, accounting firms and law firms, this chilling tale name drops some of the prominent individuals who were the primary actors in this devious grand plan. From state-owned enterprise (SEO) managers who were actors for Bain, to government officials in Zuma’s corner-including real-life TV soapie producers- the book names individuals without reservation. For instance, at SARS, the book mentioned that the frontman was Tom Moyane mainly due to Bain’s prior knowledge that he would be appointed SARS’s commissioner by Zuma after the 2014 elections. With no experience in tax issues, Moyane was groomed under the pretence of “CEO coaching” in order to carry forward the corrupted mandate. However, one of the main antagonists of this thriller is Bain & Co.’s managing partner Vittorio Massone. Having never set foot in South Africa with no connection to the country or its people the author states Massone in the Bain’s local offices
displayed arrogance with an all-knowing attitude and disrespect towards staff. Like a classic villain, Masson was the mastermind leading the grand scheme and expert curator of media statements of how Bain should twist the truth to the public.
Conspiracy theory vs. Evidence
After the lid was lifted off their dodgy activities at SARS by the Nugent Commission in 2018, Bain sought to hide some evidence, in what the author calls “Baintruth”. However, in this book, Williams bears all through personal WhatsApp chats, internal company documents and email threads to fully lift the lid on the company’s unethical conduct. Affidavits, internal investigation reports and other company documents such as Project Phoenix that Bain didn’t want the public to know are also revealed. Of course, some may question if this book is an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory or an evidence-based case for elements of state capture. Standing on all two, bootstrapped like an academic soldier he is, Williams offers exceptional evidence-based arguments backed up by academic frameworks and civil society research particularly in Part Three of the book. He shoots with the mind of a legal practitioner and the heart of a poet wearing the unquestionable love of his country on his sleeve. Through this arsenal of facts, the author covers all bases and leaves no stone unturned in proving his claims, muting all conspiracy theory enthusiasts.
The general tone of the book is not only honest, punchy and held strongly by comprehensive evidence that backs up the author’s claims but is also solution-oriented. In his closing remarks at the Zondo Commission- which was included in the book- this Cape Town-born social philosopher encourages that as a country we should move from an era of fear and bullying, and transition to an era of the brave and accountability. “Basically we need brave citizens” the author contends. Other possible remedies the book suggests include blacklisting unethical companies until they make appropriate amends. However for Bain specifically Williams is seeking full disclosure, accountability and an apology to the country’s citizens. To this, the book mentions Masson straight up said “No” when asked by Advocate Steinberg during the Nugent Commission, if Bain should offer an apology to South African taxpayers for being part of the damage at SARS. Akin to a male abuser who maintains that because he doesn’t physically beat women he is therefore innocent of any crimes, Bain arrogantly abused the state institutions and its employees; and also the country’s citizens but claimed innocence with a straight face. As an act of recourse, Bain did eventually pay back some of the looted funds. To this, the author argues that Bain wanted to implement the remedy plan as “an act of pseudo-benevolence only”. In other words, this reactionary act was merely to appease South Africans while downplaying the company’s unethical behaviours as “mistakes”. But of course, the biggest recourse for most South Africans would be seeing the corrupted politicians and private actors exchange their Armani suits for orange overalls.
Athol Williams is not only an astute business strategy advisor and academic, he is an award-winning author of seventeen books that include poetry and children’s books. Hence the creative industry particularly the poetry community- such as my wife and me – may also find resonance in this offering. Deep Collusion is a necessary read for corporate governance practitioners in the private and public sector and anyone seeking a better understanding of the extensive web of state capture. Alongside a chorus of finger -snaps “Deep!!” is the usual expression by poetry audiences after witnessing a profound poem. Indeed, one needs to take a few deeeeep breaths after each chapter. The text particularly made me think deeply about my own ethical value system. It made me question if I were to be caught in a similar situation would I be courageous enough to speak truth to power? For now, we can only ponder if at the end will we eventually see justice fulfilled after the Zondo Commission of Inquiry concludes. To this Williams writes “I could not ensure justice, but I could contribute to truth. And the truth is the first step towards justice.” Moving forward what we can find warm comfort in is that come rain, snow or shine Williams has trekked for truth and ethical leadership in exposing corporate corruption. It remains to be seen how many more mountains he will have to climb until we see justice at the horizon.
Rolland Simpi Motaung 2021