DPhil researcher Athol Williams (2015, Hertford College) was presented with his 2022 Blueprint Special Recognition award in a ceremony in London on 15 December.
The international award recognises his courageous disclosures about US-based consultancy Bain & Co, which formed a central plank of the South African Zondo Commission’s investigations into allegations of corruption and fraud in the public sector.
As part of his doctoral research, Athol Williams has developed a framework to help companies make reparations for injustices to which they have been party. It was on the basis of this work, and his past relationship with the company, that Athol was invited by Bain & Co between 2018 and 2019 to oversee their response to the allegations and the development and execution of a reparations plan. However, on working closely with the multinational consultancy, Athol grew concerned that the company was withholding information about deeper involvement in the corruption scandal, which he had been employed to consult on, than they had originally let on. This led to his whistle-blowing, disclosing evidence to the South African authorities and testifying publicly before a judicial commission of inquiry in South Africa. Both the Zondo Commission and another inquiry showed that the company had indeed been involved in the coordinated corruption activities.
A public campaign for accountability for companies involved in the corruption scandal - which not only robbed South Africa of its resources but undermined its democratic institutions – has since risen up the agenda, off the back of the public inquiry.
Athol’s experience of whistle-blowing has been harrowing, and has highlighted the vast gap between theories and ideas of social justice and their realisation. Because his testimony implicated a wide network of parties including a former president, he received severe warnings to leave South Africa for his safety. After a fellow whistle-blower was assassinated, in November 2021 he fled South Africa and returned to Oxford, where he remains. He comments:
“It has been rewarding to see my Oxford research have real-world impact even before the completion of my DPhil, however I have suffered all the burdens that whistle-blowers suffer – alienation, retaliation, and negative impacts on my health, finances and career prospects. It has highlighted to me the enormous cost to pursue justice in an unjust world.
“The award from Blueprint for Free Speech has been a great encouragement. Generally, there is very little acknowledgement for those who take on powerful actors and speak truth to power. Often in their fight, these individuals are instead silenced and ostracised. This award has helped amplify my voice and encouraged me to continue advocating for justice in a way that draws on my work at Oxford.
“I am extremely grateful to DPIR for accommodating me during this difficult time, especially my DPhil supervisor, Dr Gideon Elford, who has gone far beyond the role of a supervisor to support me through this difficult but important time pursuing justice.”
Athol continues to campaign for accountability and to develop his ideas. He is currently working towards the completion of his DPhil this year, alongside his work as a Research Associate at Hertford College, and at St Catherine’s College where he designed a course on Business Strategy & Ethics that he teaches to visiting undergraduate students.
“The award from Blueprint for Free Speech has been a great encouragement. Generally, there is very little acknowledgement for those who take on powerful actors and speak truth to power. Often in their fight, these individuals are instead silenced and ostracised. This award has helped amplify my voice and encouraged me to continue advocating for justice in a way that draws on my work at Oxford.”