Dr Ugljesa Radulovic is a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg.
Dr Anthony Kaziboni is Head of Research at the Africa Centre for Evidence, University of Johannesburg.
They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 23 November 2023.
Whistleblowing is an essential tool for holding the powerful accountable and promoting transparency. However, it comes at a vast personal cost for whistleblowers. Blockchain can be used to create anonymous whistleblowing systems.
South Africa has backslid to its 2012 position on Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), ranking 70th out of 180 countries with a score of 43/100. Despite a few years of improvement, the country has consistently maintained a low score, indicative of widespread corruption in the public sector.
However, corruption in South Africa is not a post-apartheid phenomenon. Hennie van Vuuren’s Apartheid, Guns and Money details how corruption manifested during the rule of the apartheid regime, with economic crimes having been committed through apartheid-era functionaries colluding with “reputable” companies in “reputable” states.
Corruption in South Africa has become a disease that has metastasised throughout the public sector. The once-promising vision of a prosperous nation has left countless millions disillusioned, viewing that promise as a façade.
While President Nelson Mandela tried to subdue corruption within the government, South Africa appeared to descend into chaos during President Jacob Zuma’s second term in office. Zuma and his associates successfully executed a well-coordinated State Capture project. As one of the country’s most egregious examples of corruption, South Africa lost an estimated R1.5-trillion.
State capture took centre stage primarily through the then-Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report. The report drew public attention, and more importantly, compelled the commencement of the “Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State”, dubbed the Zondo Commission. The inquiry unravelled further corruption within state institutions.
The Zondo Commission Report lauded the role of whistleblowers. It reinforced how blowing the whistle can serve as a mechanism that can contribute to creating an ethical society.
The cost of whistleblowing
Whistleblowing is an essential tool for holding the powerful accountable and promoting transparency. However, it comes at a vast personal cost for whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers are often ostracised by their colleagues and friends, making it difficult to maintain social relationships. Nico Alant was ostracised by his colleagues at the Reserve Bank after he exposed irregularities at the bank in 1989.
Similarly, Cynthia Stimpel was ostracised by her friends and colleagues at South African Airways (SAA) after she stopped a dubious R256-million deal in 2016.
Whistleblowers may also lose their jobs, leading to financial hardship. Themba Maseko was dismissed from the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) in early 2011 after he refused to comply with Ajay Gupta’s demands to direct government advertising to the Gupta family’s private newspaper, The New Age.
Simphiwe Mayisela was suspended from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) in November 2017 and eventually dismissed in June 2018 after he exposed irregularities within the entity.
Some whistleblowers receive threats to their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Athol Williams fled South Africa in November 2021, fearing physical retaliation after exposing how Zuma used Bain & Company to siphon money from the South African Revenue Service.
During his testimony at the State Capture inquiry in 2018, former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas revealed that he faced death threats from the Guptas.
In the most heinous cases, some whistleblowers have been murdered.
Moss Phakoe and Philemon Ngwenya were murdered after exposing corruption in 2009 and 2018, respectively.
Babita Deokaran was assassinated in 2021 after she blew the whistle on corruption in the Gauteng Health Department.
Cloete Murray, an accountant known for investigating high-profile corruption cases, and his son Thomas, a legal adviser, were killed in 2023 after being tasked with further detailing the criminal activity at the State Capture-linked African Global Operations (formerly Bosasa).
From these cases, it is evident that protection for whistleblowers should arise from adequate legislative provisions. However, without adequate legislative measures, whistleblowers could turn to innovative efforts to avoid retaliation.
Blockchain as a secure platform for whistleblowing
In light of the numerous risks whistleblowers face, concealing their identity could be a viable strategy for mitigating them. The anonymity of Stan and John, the whistleblowers who provided evidence to amaBhungane and Daily Maverick that would become known as the “Gupta Leaks”, is a testament to the potentially life-saving benefits of anonymity.
However, not all whistleblowers are afforded the same opportunity to secure anonymous reporting. What if whistleblowers could easily maintain anonymity while filing a case? Recent innovations such as blockchain technology are making this avenue more compelling.
Blockchain is a secure and tamper-proof digital ledger shared across a computer system network. Each block in the chain contains several transactions, and every time a new transaction occurs on the blockchain, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger. The decentralised database managed by multiple participants is Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT).
Through blockchain, anonymous or ghost whistleblowing systems allow whistleblowers to report misconduct anonymously. Whistleblowers can report misconduct without fear of being identified, helping to protect them from retaliation.
One example of a blockchain-based whistleblowing platform is the Whistleblower Network, a non-profit organisation that uses blockchain technology to create a secure and anonymous whistleblowing avenue. The platform is designed to protect the identity of whistleblowers and ensure that their reports are kept confidential.
Blockchain creates a tamper-proof record of all transactions, meaning that once data is written to a blockchain, it cannot be changed or deleted without the network consensus. This, therefore, makes the technology ideal for storing whistleblowing reports since it provides a secure and verifiable record of the report and its contents.
In addition to providing a secure and tamper-proof record of whistleblowing reports, blockchain can also be used to create anonymous whistleblowing systems. This would allow whistleblowers to report misconduct without fear of being identified.
For example, a whistleblower could submit a report using a pseudonym to a blockchain-based whistleblowing platform. The platform would then store the report on the blockchain, where it would be accessible to investigators but not to the whistleblower’s employer or other parties.
Corruption in South Africa is a widespread problem that devastates the country, affecting the indigent communities the most. As demonstrated within the South African case, whistleblowers play a vital role in combating corruption, but they often face severe retaliation for speaking out.
Blockchain has the potential to provide a secure and anonymous whistleblowing route, which could help to protect whistleblowers and encourage more people to come forward with information about corruption.
However, it is essential to note that blockchain is not a panacea to corruption. While blockchain can help to protect whistleblowers and make it more difficult for corrupt officials to tamper with records, it cannot address the root causes of corruption.
For now, we need to explore how we can leverage technology as well as ethical and moral behaviours to combat corruption.
*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.