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A safe space and support for whistleblowers

They are the heroes of good governance and our fragile democracy.
Sars, Transnet, Prasa, SAA, Trillian, Regiments – their whistleblowers are still paying the price. Image: Shutterstock

The ugly reality facing whistleblowers is that of intimidation, legal threats, harassment, loss of income-earning potential, physical intimidation, negative impacts on health and emotional wellbeing, mounting financial challenges, and even death.

A group of concerned citizens, including state capture whistleblowers, has come together to form The Whistleblower House (WBH).

Its primary objective is to provide a safe space and support services to whistleblowers from both the private and public sector.

The WBH team comprises:

  • Chair Ivan Pillay, now a private consultant for companies and state enterprises interested in improving their governance and rooting out corruption. Pillay was a Merebank activist in the 1970s, and after a lifetime of activism was appointed deputy commissioner and ultimately acting commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (Sars). He was forced to resign during the commencement of the apparent capture of Sars. His life is captured in ‘The Unlikely Mr Rogue – A Life With Ivan Pillay’ by Evelyn Groenink (Jacana Media, October 2019).
  • Liezl Groenewald, author, senior manager of organisational ethics at The Ethics Institute, and immediate past president of the Business Ethics Network of Africa. Groenewald wrote the ‘Whistleblowing Management Handbook’ (The Ethics Institute, 2020), which is available on the WBH website.
  • Martha Ngoye, a high court attorney who worked for Transnet and later joined the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), where she was group executive of legal, risk and compliance, and later acting chief executive. Ngoye fought “unlawful contracts that officials in government were trying to use to swindle the people of South Africa”. She gave evidence to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture in South Africa, and is being sued by Prasa for R45 million.
  • Ben Theron, a certified fraud examiner and seasoned operations executive who has 33 years’ operational experience, including at Eskom’s forensic investigations unit and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa).
  • Cynthia Stimpel is the author of ‘Hijackers on Board – How One Courageous Whistleblower Fought Against the Capture of SAA’ (Tafelberg, June 2021) and a motivational speaker. She spent 10 years at South African Airways (SAA) as financial risk manager and later, for two years, as group treasurer. She gave evidence to the Zondo Commission.

Screenshot of The Whistleblower House website. Image: Moneyweb

Read: Advisory firms revelled in Transnet’s corruption fest

Panel discussion

The launch of WBH on Tuesday was hosted by award-winning journalist, presenter, author and whistleblowing activist Mandy Wiener.

Wiener emphasised the importance of the role played by whistleblowers in a democratic society, upholding ethics and good governance – while in reality they are treated as pariahs, becoming unemployed and unemployable. Wiener is the author of ‘The Whistleblowers’ (Pan Macmillan SA, September 2020).

Pillay said it is important to ensure that good governance and ethical conduct is entrenched in our institutions.

“Without brave whistleblowers we would be less of what we are.”

Whistleblowers uncover theft, fraud and corruption, and are then castigated, victimised and hounded, he said.

Whistleblowers are offered no support, and have to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. Some have lost their lives.

“We do not set out to become whistleblowers,” said Stimpel, who was suspended from her position as SAA group treasurer and thereafter lost her job. “This is a lonely journey.”

She said whistleblowers are subjected to threats, and experience loneliness, poverty and fear. Potential employers perceive the whistleblower to be difficult. The whistleblower becomes an outcast of society.

Groenewald said that according to the South African business ethics survey of 2019, 31% of respondents said they had observed unethical behaviour in the past year – and of those, only 55% reported the unethical behaviour.

Of the 45% who did not report unethical behaviour, 31% did not believe that anything would be done and 32% were afraid they would be victimised at work. Examples of such consequences included: “You get targeted, bullied, emotional abuse – everything to get rid of you asap.”

Groenewald outlined the kind of abuse suffered by whistleblowers, including disciplinary charges, suspension, demotion, dismissal, injury (being shot at), negatively adjusting job duties, being transferred against their will, and non-promotion when promotion was due.

Theron said the common thread running through a whistleblower’s experience is that they are caught off guard. They do not have funds for legal support.

Theron said the WBH will:

  • Facilitate access to service providers who will offer legal, financial, security and psychological support. Two legal firms have already offered to provide services.
  • Provide a safe space for potential whistleblowers to discuss the dilemmas they face.
  • Advocate for the implementation of effective whistleblowing management systems in organisations.
  • Source funding, engage service providers in relevant areas, and engage civil society organisations to establish partnerships and widen the safety net for whistleblowers.

Theron said the relationship between the whistleblower and WBH will be contract-based, to ensure that the whistleblower understands what the WBH can do. Risk assessments will take place throughout the process.

“The whistleblowing environment is sensitive and dangerous, hence protocols must be set up adhering to the letter of the law.”

Bianca Goodson, former chief executive officer of Trillian Management Consulting, is one of the founders of WBH. Goodson left Trillian in 2016, gave evidence at the Zondo Commission, and wrote and published ‘Before you Blow the Whistle’ (Bianca Goodson, 2020), available on the WBH website.

The trauma of a whistleblower

Mosilo Mothepu worked at Regiments Capital between 2007 and 2010, and rejoined the company in 2016, reporting directly to founding partner Eric Wood. She gave evidence to the Zondo Commission.

Mosilo is the author of ‘Uncaptured: The True Account of the Triallian Whistleblower’ (Penguin Random House South Africa, June 2021).

Read: Regiments and Trillian: Whistleblower joins the dots

She provided an account of her experience as a whistleblower to the panel on Tuesday. She has been subjected to legal harassment, and her legal fees have amounted to R1.3 million.

Her medical bills, outside of that covered by medical aid, came to R420 000.

Her bond was cancelled, and she has been unemployed for two years.

Her life is in danger, and she can no longer afford a bodyguard.

Whistleblowers, at great cost to themselves, their lives, and to their families, have exposed corruption and malfeasance at both private and public organisations.

They have played a leading – and dangerous – role in exposing state capture. They are the heroes of good governance, and our fragile democracy.

Whistleblowers have also exposed the shameful lack of government will to provide legislative protection.

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Protecting whistleblowers is an inherent part of a civilized society, but so is the ringfencing of the effect of corruption. The immense pressure on whistleblowers can only be alleviated when criminals lose most of their political power. People with political connections in a socialist government act with absolute impunity.

We have to restrict the political power of criminals and confine their ability to plunder taxpayers and intimidate whistleblowers to a smaller sphere of influence. The socialist policies of the developmental state, combined with centralization of economic activities and planning, and cadre deployment, is a death sentence for whistleblowers and a license to loot for the most unscrupulous members of society. No whistleblower can be safe in an environment where “accountability lies with the collective” because nobody accepts responsibility for the safety of the whistleblower, while perpetrators act with impunity.

The problem lies with the system. The Tripartite Alliance is a sick system and the persecution of whistleblowers is merely a symptom of this chronic disease. The persecution of whistleblowers is a symptom of the socialist disease. It is useless to try and address the symptoms. We should cure the disease.

We should privatize all spheres of government, from the national level down to the municipal level, in a transparent, free, and fair process, without any favoritism or political interference that created the oligarchs in Russia. Privatization will ringfence the influence of politicians, remove the power of cadres, bring competition that benefits consumers, limit the amounts to be plundered, internalize criminality, privatize losses, protect consumers, safeguard whistleblowers, and be in the best interest of taxpayers.

No socialist system can protect whistleblowers. All such systems use the gulags and the extermination camps to deal with whistleblowers. Only the free market and the private ownership of the means of production can protect wistleblowers.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?”
— Ayn Rand

End of comments.

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