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Snitches get stitches and end up in ditches: Whistleblower webinar on 21 August 2023

  • 28 August 2023
  • 8 min read

Just two days shy of the second anniversary of brave whistleblower Babita Deokaran’s assassination, and the day before her killers were sentenced in Gauteng[1], we attended a webinar on whistleblowers, hosted by The Ethics Institute[2] and The Whistleblower House[3]. Speakers included prominent SARS whistleblower Johann van Loggerenberg, Ben Theron, Executive Director: The Whistleblower House and Lulama Qabaka, Ethics & Anti-Corruption Specialist: The Ethics Institute.

We pause to remember the ultimate price that Ms Deokaran and her family paid for her courage in blowing the whistle on the fraud and corruption at the Gauteng Department of Health. Instead of being celebrated and supported (emotionally, financially and legally) for doing the right thing, her assassination stands as a stark and chilling reminder of the extreme difficulties, persecution, losses, threats - and even death - faced by whistleblowers in South Africa and abroad.

All of this, and the need for enhanced whistleblower protection in our society, our attitudes, our legislation and our institutions, was highlighted in the Just Share report, commissioned by Futuregrowth and Old Mutual, published in May 2022 and further commented on by our colleagues: Empowering Whistleblowers: Protecting South Africa and Private sector must do more to protect whistleblowers, according to new independent report.

Tragically, progress in terms of urgent action to protect whistleblowers remains fractional, with no accountable state structure or institution driving this urgent change. Johan van Loggerenberg emphasised the need to determine where the ownership of whistleblowing resides, noting that there is too much focus on process, which detracts from the real issues. Once the issues of ownership and accountability are addressed, the mechanisms to facilitate the necessary support will follow. Much work remains to be done, and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that one of our first lines of defence against malfeasance is significantly strengthened and protected.

One of the overarching themes of the webinar was that we need a societal reboot to reframe the significance of whistleblowers and to recognise them for the vital role they play in holding wrongdoers to account. After all, they are the unsung heroes and heroines who report and prevent wrongdoing. The webinar speakers recognised that whistleblowers cannot do this on their own: we as society need to be better informed.

Lulama Qabaka of the Ethics Institute raised key points that organisations should implement and promote a healthy and ethical organisational culture, including the implementation of a comprehensive whistleblower policy as well as training and awareness programmes, engaging reputable whistleblower service providers, and conducting a risk assessment when a whistleblower matter is reported. He highlighted the need for organisations to provide the appropriate level of training and support to managers who may be the first people that whistleblowers report to. In addition, whistleblowers themselves need to understand their legal rights and the potential implications before they blow the whistle.

All too often, the identity of whistleblowers is compromised, the information they have is quashed and powerful people and organisations with significant resources unleash their power on whistleblowers to threaten, intimidate and harass them into silence.

The webinar unpacked some of the mechanisms previously discussed and the need for a fund to provide the legal, emotional, and financial support to whistleblowers while they go through the process of reporting the wrongdoing. Interestingly, Ben Theron from The Whistleblower House referenced an ACFE State of the Nation Report from 2022 that indicated that 42% of “occupational fraud” is detected by tips and that 55% of the time, it is employees who report occupational fraud.

Institutions such as The Whistleblower House, a non-profit organisation founded in 2021, provides a critical service to whistleblowers by "facilitating access to support services for whistleblowers, raising awareness of whistleblowers' plight, and recognising the vital role of whistleblowers in strengthening ethics and democracy in South Africa." Their focus is threefold; 1) support (legal, health, financial, advice etc.); 2) advocacy; and 3) acknowledgment (celebration of whistleblowers, the unsung heroes).

There was an interesting divergence of views between the speakers on the topic of financial compensation to whistleblowers, with some concerns expressed about the possible “bounty-hunting” this may attract. The speakers also differentiated between a whistleblower and a state witness (i.e. someone who may be a participant in the wrongdoing and who provides evidence in mitigation of their own crime).

We were reminded of some of Chief Justice Zondo’s words at the State Capture Commission, which aired and unearthed much of the malfeasance we have seen in South Africa in recent history, for which we have yet to see any significant accountability or justice. Instead, we see the very names implicated in the Commission being appointed to high office. This needs to change from a societal and state point of view if we are to ensure that future whistleblowers come forward.

“The commission has heard a lot of evidence from whistleblowers. If we do not look after these whistleblowers during state capture, they won’t be around next time. Others will look at how whistleblowers were treated and will not come forward. A lot of people are reporting corruption. We must assure that they are properly protected.” Chief Justice Zondo.

In conclusion, the webinar underscored the need to protect and value whistleblowers, embed ethical organisational and societal cultures, and tackle challenges related to the practicality and issues faced by whistleblowers. The discussion emphasised society's responsibility to champion those exposing corruption and misconduct and in ensuring that all available mechanisms are utilised to bring accountability and swift justice to those who steal from all of us. As our societal joint responsibility, there is an urgent appeal for government to develop suitable structures and mechanisms, and for society to engage, advocate for, and assist whistleblowers.

“The whistleblower is one of the most effective weapons against corruption. In most cases the whistleblower has information that provides a detailed insight into hitherto unsuspected criminality which is not readily ascertainable from routine inspection”. Chief Justice Zondo.




Tags: Whistleblowing

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