With corruption and fraud endemic in democratic South Africa, whistle-blowers have played a pivotal role in bringing wrongdoing to light. They have provided an invaluable service to society through disclosures about cover-ups, malfeasance and wrongdoing.
The psychological burden of choosing to speak up when there has been little reward or compensation is a heavy one to carry.
The Whistleblowers, written by Mandy Wiener, shines a light on their plight, advocating for a change in legislation, organisational support and social attitudes in order to embolden more potential whistle-blowers to have the courage to step up.
Author: Mandy Wiener
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
*Available October 2020
While they may achieve their desired or intended goals, whistle-blowers are not personally appreciated or applauded. They are not celebrated or cast as heroic characters. Instead, they are largely treated as insubordinate, pariahs or troublemakers, wearing the scarlet letter W and unable to find continued employment.
It is primarily for this reason that I’ve chosen to shine a light on the plight of whistle-blowers in South Africa, in the hope of reminding the country of how we treat our whistle-blowers and to advocate for a change in legislation, organisational support and social attitude in order to embolden more potential whistle-blowers to have the courage to step forward.
The individuals interviewed and profiled for this book are an entirely subjective and by no means exhaustive collection of whistle-blowers in the country. There were no definitive criteria for inclusion. I have attempted to curate a cross-section of narratives and examples from the public and private sector, from the state capture era to long before, when the arms deal and e-tolls were fully in our collective consciousness.
I’ve also tried to reflect those whose outcomes differ to give a fair and balanced impression of the implications, risks and rewards. Many of the stories in these pages are high profile, having already enjoyed media attention. Some less so. But for each of the stories I’ve included, there has been some compelling aspect that has captured my attention.
This is not to say that these are “the best” of the lot; indeed, some are problematic and flawed characters who might not even be considered whistle-blowers by detractors. There are many more people whose stories I could have told, but unfortunately constraints of space and time have prevented this.
There’s justice department employee Mike Tshishonga, who out of desperation went to the media to expose corruption and nepotism in the Master’s Office. Despite making disclosures internally, there was no adequate action taken. Tshishonga was suspended from his job and forced to fight it out with government in the labour court, eventually reaching a settlement.
Both Tshishonga and his civil servant wife experienced enormous personal hardship as a result. Then there’s 60-something grandmother Cynthia Stimpel, who was the group treasurer at SAA, who questioned procedures when a decision was made to appoint BNP Capital to provide financial advisory services at an inflated cost to the troubled airline.
She chose to risk her job by speaking out against a highly irregular financial deal within the national carrier. Stimpel sent a whistle-blowing message to the National Treasury but when that didn’t work, she contacted Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, which approached the media and succeeded in getting an interdict to prevent SAA from sealing the deal, saving the airline more than R250 million.
Or perhaps I could have included those who were profiled in a Corruption Watch booklet but have received very little other media attention. These include teachers from White City in Soweto, who reported on alleged fraud and corruption by a principal at their school. Chris Setusha, a teacher at Mmutle High School in Hammanskraal, Pretoria, anonymously reported allegations of abuse of power by his principal in a theft and burglary case involving two youngsters.
The principal had allegedly coaxed the two to break into the school and steal computers and bicycles; when they were arrested, they told the police this in an affidavit. Setusha approached Corruption Watch with the information to help show his community that ordinary people speaking out is an important part of fighting corruption.
Or Zamuxolo Moutloali who, in 2012, as a Grade 11 pupil, took the Eastern Cape and national education departments to court to answer for poor governance and appalling conditions at the Moshesh Senior Secondary School. Moutloali was victimised by teachers at the school after Equal Education stepped in to try and help.
He remained undeterred and continued to fight for education and accountability.
There are also those individuals profiled in the Open Democracy Advice Centre’s Heroes Under Fire report: Bloem Water employee Xola Banisi, who was gunned down in September 2014 after approaching the Hawks and the Public Protector about tender corruption; Dr Paul Theron, an employee of the department of health delivering health-care services at Pollsmoor Prison, who exposed the poor state of health care within the facility in 2007; Takalani Murathi, a senior manager at the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority, who raised concerns about irregularities in their tender process and financial irregularities concerning the CEO of Seta; and Roberta Nation, who worked for the State Security Agency’s medical aid scheme, who was victimised after reporting fraudulent activities.
There are devoted, principled individuals who are not technically whistle-blowers, but rather simply did their jobs properly and refused to allow themselves to become complicit in the commission of a crime. For example, Prasa’s former CFO Yvonne Page, who opposed the parastatal’s plans to deposit R1 billion with VBS Bank and went against the instructions of her CEO to make the payment. She subsequently informed the Treasury and the situation became public – it was written about in The Great Bank Heist report into VBS corruption.
So, too, is the story of Mariette Venter, the acting CFO of the Capricorn District Municipality, who also stood up to immense pressure to block the deposit of R60 million of taxpayers’ money into VBS. The defiance and resilience of both these women, who defended citizens against the onslaught on public funds by the greedy, deserves to be acknowledged.
Then there are those who remain nameless and faceless, who chose to stay anonymous and not expose their involvement. The contribution of such whistle-blowers as sources to journalists and investigators is enormous and we owe them a great debt.
Much of the work investigative journalists do would not be possible were it not for those who felt obligated to reach out with tip-offs and information from the inside.
My focus in this book has been on the human narrative, on the personal dilemmas, the internal conundrums, the to-ing and fro-ing and the wrestling with decisions. This is not an exhaustive investigation of the merits of the contents of the disclosures or an examination of the wrongdoing exposed.
For this reason, I have not sought right of reply in every instance from those named, particularly when an individual is expressing their own personal opinion or viewpoint. I wanted to retain the focus on the whistle-blowers themselves and their own journeys rather than allowing the conversation to deteriorate into the he/she said of everyday news reporting.
This noted, every effort has been made to verify and authenticate claims that are made in these pages, in line with responsible journalism. Some might feel that those included are not whistle-blowers and should not be celebrated as such, that instead they might have been complicit in crimes and are covering up their crooked behaviour. I acknowledge this and, where necessary, explain that it is for a court of law to pass judgment.
I hope this selection of stories serves as a glimpse into the realities of those among us who are propelled to pursue their crusade for truth and justice, regardless of the consequences. Their stories, told through their own voices, are raw and evocative.
I hope these narratives will move legislators and authorities to reassess current legislation and consider innovative ways to protect whistle-blowers in the future. I also hope that this collection, captured for posterity, will serve as a guide of what to do and not to do for those mulling the decision to speak up.
From the hallowed corridors of Parliament to the political killing fields of KwaZulu-Natal. From the corruption-riddled platinum belt to the impoverished, gang-ridden suburb of Elsies River in Cape Town.
From the gantried freeways of Gauteng to the Bosasa blesser’s face-brick campus in Krugersdorp on the West Rand. From the wild east of Mpumalanga to the heartless corporate jungle of Sandton. From the wide open farmlands of the Free State to that corrupt compound in Saxonwold.
These are the stories of South Africa’s whistle-blowers. They deserve all the sunlight they get.
- The Whistleblowers, written by Mandy Wiener will be in stores on September 23