BEFORE HE BECAME AN ANTI-CORRUPTION WHISTLEBLOWER  in his native South Africa, Athol Williams MC/MPA 2013 was a mechanical engineer turned high-flying management consultant turned aspiring activist. He was at Harvard Kennedy School pursuing his Mid-Career Master in Public Administration as well as his passion for using poetry to foment social change.  

Throughout that 2012–13 academic year, Williams enlisted fellow HKS students to write short poems that could inspire others to service. Just before graduation in May, he published a small book titled Our World, Better Together, including poems by more than 30 fellow student-authors. 

The student poetry volume opens with lines of verse from the school’s namesake, the late President John F. Kennedy: “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” To his classmates, Williams read from his own prophetic poem: 

“...These few,
Their voices will be the voices of the voiceless,
They will stand as a wall against the armies of the crooked....”

Eight years later, Williams would stand up to the leaders of Bain & Co.—the global consulting agency where he had been a partner; he testified as a whistleblower in South Africa’s sweeping anti-corruption inquiry into what was called “state capture.” In his testimony and submissions, he disclosed documents showing how, he contended, his longtime employer had taken part in the systematic weakening of the country’s tax authority to enable corruption to go undetected.

Athol Williams

“This gave me an opportunity to take some of my philosophies of friendship, of love, of tolerance, and build them into our programs.”

Athol Williams
Globe

That ethical choice cost him more than just his lucrative salary and benefits as a partner. Not long after his testimony in 2021, he felt so threatened that he decided he had no other choice but to leave the country. He now lives in Britain, estranged from the homeland he loves, just getting by financially and uncertain when and even if he can go home again.  

But even in exile, he has not slowed his voracious appetite for learning—and acquiring advanced degrees. In October he completed his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University. That would earn him a seventh university degree.  

No small achievement for a man who grew up in violent, gang-riddled Mitchell’s Plain, a township that under apartheid was set aside for Coloureds (the South African legal category of people of mixed-race), in the Cape Flats district east of Cape Town. Born in 1970, Williams came of age in the 1980s when the uprising against South Africa’s system of racial segregation and white-minority rule left public schools shuttered and the streets filled with tear gas.  

After some forays into those rock-throwing battles in high school, Williams opted to pour himself into education, believing that was his best chance to thrive personally—and to contribute to meaningful change in South Africa. 

Athol Williams reading to a classroom of students

“Somehow it just clicked for me: I must focus on education,” Williams says. “And I set these goals for myself, I wrote them down at the age of 15: I was going to study at MIT, I was going to study at Oxford. Now for a kid in Mitchell’s Plain, that wasn’t a dream, it was a fantasy.” 

“And I got criticized by many of my contemporaries that I chose to study while they were fighting the fight. They fought for freedom and ‘Athol was a wuss, a wimp, he went and picked up books.’ But for me it was about the Frantz Fanon idea that we’ve got to liberate our minds first,” Williams added, referring to the Francophone Caribbean philosopher and critic of imperialism. 

He read nonstop, whatever books he could lay his hands on. He was encouraged by his parents, neither of whom finished high school, and his father’s voracious reading set a lifelong example. (Williams counts his personal library at 10,000 books.) Despite the school boycotts and unrest, he got through high school and earned a full scholarship to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He studied engineering there during the day and spent his evenings across campus in workshops indulging his other passion, poetry. 

In those final years of apartheid, before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and ascendancy to the presidency in 1994, Williams felt the sting of racial discrimination personally. Security police burst into his apartment one night, evidently to scare him away from student activism. After graduating, he worked as a junior engineer for a subsidiary of the mining giant Anglo American. But he hated it. He knew what he wanted: a graduate degree in America, and not just from any school. From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“I could not ensure justice, but I could contribute to truth. And truth is the first step toward justice.”

Athol Williams
Globe

Without knowing how he would afford it, Williams made his first trip abroad for what was to be a life-changing journey. A last-minute South African scholarship covered his tuition at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, but when he first arrived he barely had enough money to live and eat.  He grew to love Boston, and got to see his beloved Bruce Springsteen perform live. A summer internship at Bain & Co.’s Boston headquarters gave him his first taste of business consulting, another recurring thread in his life. He joined Bain full time after graduating but soon left for a mining industry job based in London, where he earned a master’s degree from London Business School in corporate finance; then he rejoined Bain and moved back to Boston.  

In 2001 he returned to South Africa for another corporate role, but soon went out on his own, building a highly successful consulting firm helping Black corporate executives rise through the fast-changing business landscape in post-apartheid South Africa. Williams recalls that halfway through the first decade of the 21st century he owned six cars and three houses. But he and his wife Taryn began to question that lifestyle. They decided together to live more simply and find ways to help others while they were relatively young. 

And Willams kept learning and writing poetry even as he strode through the corporate world of South Africa. He wrote children’s books and published poetry volumes. In 2012 he came to Cambridge again, this time for the MC/MPA at Harvard Kennedy School. He graduated a month after the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. 

Williams says that one of his favorite HKS professors, Senior Lecturer Marshall Ganz, attended an event one evening that spring where all the student authors read their poems aloud to the gathered graduating class. As Williams recalls it in his memoir, Ganz, a long-time social activist turned academic, said afterwards that he had been seeking the soul of Harvard for 20 years—and that night he found it.  

Ganz still recalls that joyful evening of student poetry vividly, saying, “it really did bring some much needed music—of the heart—to this place.” 

It was while studying at HKS, and inspired in part by Ganz’s class on social activism, that Williams says he and his wife came up with an idea for a nonprofit in South Africa that would let his passion for books help him meet one of his country’s deepest needs: building literacy in the poorest communities of color. 

When he got back to his hometown of Mitchell’s Plain, he and Taryn launched Read to Rise, designed to give out books and hold readings and workshops in the hardscrabble townships east of Cape Town. Over the past decade, Read to Rise, which has also expanded to Soweto—the huge, poor township outside Johannesburg—has given out 300,000 books, Williams says.  

“Literacy is one of the big challenges in South Africa. We’ve got four out of five children who can’t read with comprehension,” Williams said. “This gave me an opportunity to take some of my philosophies of friendship, of love, of tolerance, and build them into our programs. We keep saying our program is far more about the rise than about the read. For me it’s a long-term social movement. This is really my theory of change, that when we are inspired to do something, we’ll figure it out. So let’s get kids excited about reading and learning and they will figure out the rest for themselves.” 

Among the books Williams gives out are those of his own children’s book series, Oaky, which his wife has illustrated. He has also published six books of poetry. 

Athol Williams leads a grade-school class

“If you ask me what it is I do, I’d say I am a poet. I lecture at a business school in accounting and strategy, but what I am at heart is a poet,” he says. “It’s a form of expression, but I use it as a form of experimentation. It’s where I like to experiment with hopeful ideas.” 

For example, his poetry volume called Bumper Cars plays on the theme of cars wrapped in rubber bands so they can collide without violence. “Poetry became that space for me to experiment with ideas of social justice … and to experiment with what humanity can be.” 

That’s what prompted him to persuade fellow Kennedy School students, including military officers and politicians, to write poems and share them with classmates. “If my hypothesis has got any merit—that poetry has some innate magic—then if we just express what is in our hearts in a way that others can appreciate, something will manifest. There’ll be some connection.” 

After he wound down his management consultancy, Williams focused more on business ethics, founding a nonprofit called the Institute of Social and Corporate Ethics.  

Then it was time for him to make his own ethical choices, which Williams describes in his book, Deep Collusion: Bain and the Capture of South Africa. He wrote that Bain had become embroiled in the investigation in South Africa into “state capture,” where many government institutions were corrupted. Bain was accused of undermining the tax collection system, in league with then-President Jacob Zuma. Bain brought Williams back in as a senior partner in 2018, ostensibly to help uncover the truth about what had happened in the preceding years. But Williams sensed that the firm was using him for credibility while evading full disclosure of its role. By 2019, he broke with Bain and volunteered to testify before the official inquiry into state capture, known as the Zondo Commission—a senior partner turned whistleblower. 

“I offered to do what I could to support the commission’s pursuit of truth and justice,” Williams wrote in the book. “I could not ensure justice, but I could contribute to truth. And truth is the first step toward justice.” But it came at a personal price,  and “the fact that I was in danger became very real.”   

Legal cases are still pending and Williams avoids going further than he did in his book. And he says, “I was a diehard Bain consultant. They were the ones who gave me my big break and I was very successful at Bain.” So testifying against them “was a massive moment for me. It traumatized me.”   

At Oxford, he teaches a course called “Strategy and Ethics,” which combines competitive and hard-nosed strategic thinking with ethical considerations. “And I think we’ve got to put them in tension with each other,” Williams says. “I teach accounting to MBAs and I help them consider how we account for human rights abuses, for costs to the environment.”  

Williams is mindful of his own losses: He still feels hurt by friends who turned away from him after his testimony and has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal fees in recent years, funded in part by online campaigns. 

But he hasn’t given up on the idea of going home. “I have this view, and this might be a romantic view, of saying, ‘Just let me carry on with my life here, build skill, build perspective, and then at the right time, hopefully I can go back, when we are ready to rebuild and do things the right way.’” 

 

Photos courtesy of Athol Williams

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