Whistle-blowers have helped SA – the country must help them in return

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As we hobble towards the 30-year mark of a democratic order, the promises for a better life for all have been numerous and, unfortunately, so too have been the disappointments. Photo: iStock/ Kritchanut
As we hobble towards the 30-year mark of a democratic order, the promises for a better life for all have been numerous and, unfortunately, so too have been the disappointments. Photo: iStock/ Kritchanut


After the unsurprisingly low voter turnout in the last elections, we need not look too far for the reasons for South Africans’ despondency and apathy.

As we hobble towards the 30-year mark of a democratic order, the promises for a better life for all have been numerous and, unfortunately, so too have been the disappointments.

For the better part of Corruption Watch’s 10-year existence, my colleagues and I have had a bird’s eye view of the troubles plaguing the country – seen, of course, through a corruption lens.

That said, it is important to note the disingenuity of separating corrupt and criminal activities from most of the governance problems experienced in the public and private sectors.

From the organisation’s vantage point, we cannot and should not discount the tens of thousands of whistle-blower accounts that have been received since inception.

They bear testimony to the oft-repeated fact that the abuse of entrusted power for personal or private gain impacts negatively on service delivery.

Additionally, such abuse leads to a distrust of democratic processes, businesses and public officials. Moreover, it cripples state institutions.

This is where the country finds itself at present and matters are sure to become worse should this situation be left unattended.

In almost every complaint of graft that Corruption Watch has received thus far, ordinary people outline how these unethical activities have impeded procurement processes in municipalities, schools, various government departments and state-owned entities. Consequently, learners have no provisions, infrastructure is dilapidated and the public purse is increasingly thin.

If that is not disheartening enough, the politicians’ doublespeak on so-called interventions and inroads made in handling the problem leaves a person with a feeling of foreboding – though how can it not, when whistle-blowers are victims of violent crimes during this period of regeneration?

At the very least, we would expect the brave persons who expose corrupt practices to be protected and valued – not in speeches, but at their workplaces and homes.

Nevertheless, as bleak as the status quo may be, what we can count on is that South Africans are strong-willed people with big hearts.

Their unyielding rejection of immoral and illegal acts is what has helped us understand the extent to which this disease is pervasive and demand accountability.

READ: Combatting corruption is key to creating a sustainable path of future growth for South Africa

Corruption Watch has over 35 000 reports of corruption, highlighting this fact and, more recently, the additional voices of 2 010 people who participated in a perceptions survey about whistle-blowing in South Africa.

The former of these groups have demonstrated virtuously that they will not stand for any form of impropriety, and the latter, despite challenges faced by whistle-blowers in the country, generally had a positive outlook on whistle-blowing.

In relation to the optimism illustrated by the survey participants, over three-quarters of respondents claimed that they would report wrongdoing, should they experience it.

This sentiment is bolstered by answers that say reporting malfeasance and criminality is a civic duty as well as a means to seek justice and accountability. Approximately 64% and 57% of responses, respectively, strongly agreed with these assertions.

Furthermore, the surveyed group believes that those who make disclosures have contributed positively to the discourse of corruption, for their accounts have led to an understanding of several related issues.

Notably, the study found that the country’s democracy and legal instruments have strengthened as a result of the heroic acts of whistle-blowers.

However, the majority of participants state that they would rather trust civil society organisations, chapter 9 bodies and the media with their complaints as opposed to the SA Police Service, the presidency and parliamentarians.

This is an indication of how abysmally these institutions have performed in rooting out corruption and how far removed their representatives are from the people who entrusted them with power.

In essence, the respondents believe that the behaviour of elected representatives and businesspeople has not changed for the better despite the many disclosures made over the years.

Interestingly, when asked under which circumstances they would be willing to speak out against wrongful conduct, almost three-fifths of the participants were willing to do so if a friend or family was implicated.

Predictably, the first and second most popular options that were chosen under this question were if they had witnessed unethical conduct but were not directly involved in the situation, and if it were a life-threatening situation.

But what stood out in this regard is that the sample group was less inclined to report wrongdoing if they deemed the act petty, such as a mother paying a R50 bribe to secure placement for her child at a nearby school.

This show of sympathy illustrates that people regard political figures, police officials and private entities to be the most problematic in addressing abuse of power.

Taken further, it also supports an argument that Sabeehah Motala and I proposed in a piece titled SA Needs a Human Rights Framework Based on Social Values, that legislators should rather assess the contexts under which wrongdoers partake in corrupt activities.

READ: Citizens in deteriorating suburbs forgotten

The premise for our belief is that, in a society where government fails to provide even basic amenities, the most vulnerable and poorest in our midst are bound to participate in corrupt dealings out of desperation.

Nonetheless, until the material conditions of the majority of South Africans improve significantly, the struggle continues. Part of that struggle is to ensure that the lives and livelihoods of people reporting wrongful and improper conduct are safe and protected.

One of the ways to achieve this is to heed the call of the majority of people in the study who expressed the need for reform that will see to it that whistle-blowers are taken care of psychologically, financially and legally.

Ncala is a senior researcher at Corruption Watch


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