SA tobacco whistleblower wins top UK award, says home was petrol bombed when he spoke out

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South Africans Francois van der Westhuizen and Pieter Snyders jointly won a top UK whistleblowing award for sharing information about SA's tobacco industry.
South Africans Francois van der Westhuizen and Pieter Snyders jointly won a top UK whistleblowing award for sharing information about SA's tobacco industry.
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  • Francois van der Westhuizen and Pieter Snyders have been named joint winners of a prestigious whistleblowing award in the UK. 
  • Van der Westhuizen said his home was petrol bombed after he started to share information about the internal activities of private security company Forensic Security Services.
  • Suelette Dreyfus of the Blueprint for Free Speech says events in 2021, including the murder of Babita Deokaran, placed a spotlight on the dangers that whistleblowers face in SA. 

Francois van der Westhuizen, a whistleblower who worked for a security company employed by British American Tobacco (BAT) SA, has said his home was petrol bombed and his wife injured in an attempted kidnapping after he spoke out about the tobacco giant's alleged dirty tricks. 

Van der Westhuizen - together with fellow South Africans Pieter Snyders, Babita Deokaran and Thabiso Zulu - was honoured this week at the Blueprint for Free Speech Whistleblowing Awards in the UK. 

Van der Westhuizen and Snyders - who provided evidence of how tobacco giant BAT allegedly sabotaged and spied on rivals - were announced joint winners of the UK Whistleblowing Prize. BAT has denied the allegations, saying they mischaracterise legitimate anti-illicit trade activity.

Deokaran - who was killed in a hit outside her home in Johannesburg in August - and Zulu received special recognition awards. 

Intimidation 

In an address at the online awards ceremony, Van der Westhuizen said that his home was petrol bombed before he testified at a SA Revenue Service (SARS) hearing in 2017. 

A former police officer, Van der Westhuizen worked as an operative for a private security company called Forensic Security Services (FSS). 

In late 2016, he started sharing information about work he said FSS did for BAT, including overseeing an extensive network of informants and disrupting rivals' operations. BAT soon cut ties with the group.

He said he and his family then became the target of violent intimidation attempts. 

"My home was petrol bombed on the Saturday prior to me testifying," he said. "I went and testified the Monday. [While I] was testifying in a departmental hearing, they broke into my wife's school where she was working, and they stole her cellphone and her laptop."
- Francois van der Westhuizen

"My daughter's car got attacked by a guy on a motorbike … my son was robbed of his bicycle on his way to school." 

He said his wife was also the subject of an attempted kidnapping that badly injured her.

Earlier this year, Van der Westhuizen was interviewed for a BBC report about how BAT allegedly sabotaged and spied on competitors in southern Africa, based on newly leaked documents. The investigation was conducted jointly with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the University of Bath. 

The tobacco giant, which has a 71% market share of SA's cigarette market, said the reportage had "mischaracterised" its anti-illicit trade activity and that allegations of wrongdoing were not new.

It said it had "fully cooperated" with a 2017 probe opened by the UK's Serious Fraud Office, which was closed earlier this year with no action taken. 

Safety measures 

Van der Westhuizen said whistleblowers in South Africa have little protection. 

"There should be a law protecting whistleblowers. In the last two or three months in South Africa, some of the whistleblowers were taken out by hit squads, shot dead in front of their children. Some of the people working at the FSS were shot dead."

Suelette Dreyfus, executive director of Blueprint for Free Speech, said in a statement that 2021 placed a spotlight on the dangers that whistleblowers face in South Africa. 

"The murder of Deokaran, the ill treatment of Thabiso Zulu, the assassination of his friend Sindiso Magaqa, and the departure of Athol Williams have all raised international awareness of the plight of whistleblowers in South Africa," she said.

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