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Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Politically and culturally, UK cabinet office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg and I have little in common. So that made his agreement earlier this week to suspend Bain & Co from bidding for UK government contracts even more welcome.

It has certainly set an important precedent. UK civil servants have resisted pressure to take action for a long time, even after I had repeatedly argued in the House of Lords that if the UK really was serious about tackling corruption and money laundering it needed to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.

In common with some other governments the UK has decent anticorruption and anti-money-laundering laws, which were recently upgraded to target Russian president Vladimir Putin and his oligarch henchmen.  And Britain has finally put the Gupta brothers on its sanctions list.

But like the US and European governments, the UK has moved at a snail-like pace to confront global corporate complicity over SA’s state capture decade. Neither London nor Washington has censored HSBC or Standard Chartered for the gargantuan money laundering these banks facilitated, which enabled the Gupta brothers to move billions of rand out of Johannesburg through Dubai and Hong Kong, where it was hidden before being moved through shell companies. 

When I pressed these bank chiefs in late 2017 to open their books and trace the looted funds they refused, citing “client confidentiality”. That is a specious excuse: surely a privacy code designed for honest citizens should not protect blatant criminals?

As for the Indian government over the Bank of Baroda’s equally serious complicity in money laundering for the Guptas, why has it not acted when it part-owns Baroda?  And, given that the Guptas shelter there.

The truth is that governments — from London and Washington to Dubai, Delhi and Beijing — have turned a blind eye to the unethical and sometimes fraudulent behaviour in SA of fee-clutching global corporates such as Bain, KPMG, McKinsey, SAP, Hogan Lovells and the banks HSBC, Standard Chartered and Baroda.

Until these governments change course and start co-operating, there will be no end to global financial crime, estimated by the UN to come to a total of about 5% of global GDP, or $2-trillion, each and every year.

Let’s hope the Bain precedent set by the UK is replicated by other governments, starting with the US, where president Joe Biden could establish a global standard for corporate behaviour.

Remember that the Nugent commission was excoriating about Bain, finding that it had acted unlawfully and referring it for prosecution. Then justice Raymond Zondo’s findings, coming on top of those by the Nugent commission, were a devastating indictment of a company that operates at, and influences, the highest level of civil service and business around the world.

In SA Bain used its expertise not to enhance the functioning of a world-renowned tax authority, as the SA Revenue Service (Sars) was acknowledged to be, but to disable its ability to collect tax and pursue tax evaders, all in the service of its corrupt paymasters. The very company that possessed the expertise to bolster SA’s defences against the ravages of state capture weakened those defences and profited from it.

Yet Bain remains in denial. It would have us believe that what happened in SA was the work of one rotten apple. But its SA office’s work was endorsed by both Bain’s leaders in London and its US headquarters in Boston, and many senior people currently working for Bain in London were involved in the SA business during the corrupt Zuma era.

Some of the very Bain partners who worked in SA while public procurement rules were broken, and the company’s collusion with then president Jacob Zuma in a “premeditated offensive” against the SA Revenue Service occurred (the Nugent judicial commission’s description of Bain’s role), are now working in Bain’s London office.  That is also why I pressed the UK government to act, and commend it for doing so.

It is completely unacceptable that Bain operates public contracts in the UK, the US or anywhere else in the world, at least until it has repaid all of the fees earned from the SA state during the Zuma/Gupta years, has made full disclosure, and the Zondo-recommended legal action against the company is completed.

Bain should also stop hounding and intimidating its former global partner, whistleblower Athol Williams, who provided evidence that helped me persuade Rees-Mogg to act. If Bain compensated, rather than financially penalised, Williams, that would send a good signal. And the SA business community should also embrace, not turn its back on Williams for his bravery and sacrifices.

Public sector contracts across the world should be cleaned up by ensuring taxpayer money is spent on companies with high standards, not grubby standards.

I hope the SA government will now provide leadership and welcome the recent statement by National Treasury acting director-general Ismail Momoniat to that effect. SA ministers and ambassadors should be pressing host governments worldwide to follow the British precedent.

• Lord Hain is a former British anti-apartheid leader and cabinet minister. His memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ ’ was recently published by Jonathan Ball.

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