OPINION | Does there need to be more than the PDA act to better protect whistleblowers?

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Former Chief Executive Officer of Trillian Management Consulting, Bianca Goodson testifies at the Commission of Inquiry on 4 March  2021 in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images/Papi Morake)
Former Chief Executive Officer of Trillian Management Consulting, Bianca Goodson testifies at the Commission of Inquiry on 4 March 2021 in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

The Protected Disclosures Amendment Act is not enough to protect whistleblowers. Liezl Groenewald writes a whistleblower protection organisation needs to be established. 


South Africans have recently again been made aware of the poor treatment whistleblowers receive.

In their testimonies at the Zondo Commission in March 2021, two specific whistleblowers - a former partner at Bain SA, Athol Williams, and former Trillian Management Consulting CEO Bianca Goodson - brought the plight of whistleblowers to the attention of not only Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, but also the nation.  

In reaction to Goodson's breakdown during her testimony, Zondo expressed his concern about the lack of protection to whistleblowers and his interest in evaluating the adequacy or otherwise of protection of whistleblowers in South Africa.

Later in March, in reaction to Williams' appeal to the commission to provide protection for whistleblowers, Zondo reaffirmed solid protection for whistleblowers is needed in South Africa.

These remarks led to a spike in social and other media discussions about the current lack of protection and the detriment generally suffered by whistleblowers. However, some commentators did express the hope Zondo's interest in the matter might lead to action in terms of the development of an effective national whistleblower protection policy. In many people's view, he became a swallow with the potential to make a summer. 

READ | Opinion: Whistleblowers are the heart of Corruption Watch's fight

But what should whistleblowers be protected from?

Discussions with and testimonies from them make it clear there are numerous ways in which organisations mistreat those employees who have exposed wrongdoing in their midst.

The Protected Disclosures Amendment Act (Act 5 of 2017) states employees are protected against occupational detriment, where the latter is defined as the threat or the carrying out of actions that may harm the employment status of an employee or worker in response to their making a protected disclosure.  

These actions are any disciplinary action, dismissal, suspension, demotion, harassment or intimidation, transfer against an employee's will, refusal of or provision of an adverse reference, disadvantageous alteration of a term or condition of employment or retirement; denial of appointment to any employment, profession, or office, and subjection to a civil claim for the alleged breach of a duty of confidentiality arising from the disclosure of a criminal offence or a contravention or failure to comply with the law.

Besides, the act protects whistleblowers against "being otherwise adversely affected in respect of his or her employment, profession or office, including employment opportunities, work security and the retention or acquisition of contracts to perform work or render services". 

Unemployed 

Theoretically, it should therefore not have been necessary for a whistleblower, interviewed by Fuchs and Groenewald (2018/19) - to state "you get targeted, bullied, emotional blackmail [sic], emotional abuse - everything to get rid of you as soon as possible".

Neither should it have been necessary for Williams and Goodson to become unemployed and "unemployable". If the protection legislation in South Africa was effective, no whistleblower should be victimised in any form. 

What is often forgotten is whistleblowers also suffer consequences not contemplated by the act and are external to the working environment.

Williams alluded to some of these: "… one of the hardest things when being a whistleblower is feelings of alienation. You feel alone. You feel abandoned. My business buddies turned their backs; every friend I had at Bain turned their backs on me".

Goodson has, on various platforms, stated she suffers/suffered from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, her family was negatively affected, and her finances ruined.

These detriments are echoed by others who have taken a stance against unethical conduct. Other whistleblowers, such as Xola Banisi (who spoke up about corruption concerning two tenders at Bloem Water) and Moses Phakwe (an ANC municipal councillor who had attempted to expose corruption in the municipality), have both been gunned down because of their moral courage to blow the whistle.  

From my reading, the act is a good piece of legislation. There are, however, several reasons why it seems to be ineffective in protecting whistleblowers. These are:

  • Organisations do not heed the act.
  • Do not create awareness about the provisions of the act among their stakeholders.
  • Do not act on their promises regarding the protection of whistleblowers against retaliation as communicated through their whistleblowing policies.
  • Do not act against victimisers.
  • Do not provide holistic support to whistleblowers that include access to, for example, psychological and legal services.

The question now is whether another amendment of the act will better protect whistleblowers in South Africa. How can our protection legislation address detriments such as ostracisation, loneliness, depression, financial bankruptcy, becoming unemployable, and death?

Broad protection and assistance by an independent organisation or institution are required, such as Huis Voor Klokkenluiders, the Dutch Whistleblowing Authority, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa and the newly established Whistleblower-Herz, Germany's first non-profit whistleblower support organisation.

Concerted effort needed

These organisations provide general advice to whistleblowers, investigation of reports, legal counsel and financial support, assistance with preparing their testimonies to relevant authorities and evaluating risks they face when promoting their cases on national and international media.

However, a glaring gap in the offered services exists in so far as it concerns the provision of psychological support.  

READ | Mandy Wiener: We need a societal revolution to treat whistleblowers differently

By establishing an independent organisation like the aforementioned in South Africa, many detriments suffered by whistleblowers, including occupational liability, can be prevented and addressed.

Zondo is but one swallow in a position of authority who spoke out about the lack of protection for whistleblowers. This is indeed a reason for celebration. However, South Africa cannot rely on him alone to effect changes.

A concerted effort by several role players is required to lobby for the establishment of a whistleblower protection organisation funded by, for example, corporate South Africa or a philanthropist. One swallow does not make a summer.  

- Liezl Groenewald is a senior manager: organisational ethics development at The Ethics Institute. She is also the author of the 'Whistleblowing Management Handbook.' 

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