Whistle blowing – the cost of courage


David Loxton | Head | Africa Forensics & Cyber | mail me | 

Corruption has become as much a part of the South African identity as Seven Colour Sundays or biltong. Eradicating something that is woven into our nation’s fabric seems like an impossible task, and is a possibility only if whistleblowers are prepared to take a stand.

Given the victimisation our whistleblowers have faced in the past, why would anyone be willing to take the risk?

Walk into any corporate, and you’ll notice posters encouraging employees to take action when they notice anything awry. The numbers for confidential hotlines are provided, and workers are reminded that they’ll be doing The Right Thing; something with positive ramifications not only for themselves, their colleagues and their companies, but also the country as a whole.

And yet, what happens when this advice is acted upon and whistleblowers take action?

Perhaps you’ll be treated like Susan Daniels, whose report on dodgy dealings at Eskom saw her slapped with a disciplinary hearing after she was accused of having played a role in the transactions herself. The former head of legal and compliance was suspended and eventually fired from the company, but not before receiving a number of death threats.

Former ANC MP Vytjie Mentoor received similar treatment after she outed the nature of the relationship between Zuma and the Guptas. Meanwhile, Dr Makhosi Khoza opted to retire from a 35-year career in politics after challenging Zuma.

At your risk

The message seems clear: speak out at your own risk. And be warned: the consequences probably won’t be pretty.

Nor is this a new situation. Back in 2009, Transparency Watch International ranked South Africa 55 out of 180 countries in a Corruption Perceptions Index. What’s more, the South African Business Ethics Survey, conducted in 2013, revealed that as many as 65.2% of employees who are aware of misconduct in their organisations fail to report it because they fear victimisation.

More disturbing still is a recent statement by Alison Tilley of the Open Democracy Advice Centre: during the launch of National Whistleblowing Week in October, she noted that the number of whistleblowers (apparently never high to start with) is on the decline.

An alarming indicator of a nation that’s lax on its ethics, this is even more worryingly a concrete obstacle to transparency. According to Whistle Blowers, an organisation which promotes transparency in organisations, tip offs are the number one identifier of fraud and occupational abuse.

Where have we gone so wrong?

The current culture is obviously at fault. It’s said that the fish rots from the head and, truly, since it’s only recently that we have emerged from the control of a president who appeared to have little regard for ethics, it’s not surprising that South Africans seem to have let their own standards drop a little.

This isn’t a new observation, but if a society is happy to bribe its way out of traffic fines or blatantly flout the law by using a cell phone while driving, is anyone really going to take a stand against anything more serious?

In fact, I believe that the culture discouraging whistleblowing – and therefore tacitly endorsing misconduct – begins as early as school. Think of the child who is left in charge of class when the teacher leaves the room; is their diligence applauded when they give the names of troublemakers, or are they mocked as tell-tales?

Other countries are getting it right.

The United States is a case in point. Here, along with a culture of whistleblowing, there is a culture of whistleblower rewards, first ushered in by the False Claims Act signed by Abraham Lincoln back in 1863.

Since then, several other pieces of legislation have been enacted, ensuring that whistleblowers are adequately compensated for the risks they take. According to Whistleblowersinternational.com, US authorities have paid out

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