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Opinion: Boosting whistle-blower protection in SA is urgent and will ultimately set them free

Dr Ugljesa Radulovic is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 29 September 2023.

In John Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, Hannes and Siggy’s youth rebellion in post-World War 2 Austria revolves around a plot to liberate the bears of the Vienna Zoo. To say that the novel is merely about rebellion would, of course, be far too simplistic. Its themes are much deeper and deal with freedom versus captivity. In the novel, the animals of the Vienna Zoo truly do desire freedom, but this desire for freedom also extends to the everyday lives of human beings.

South African whistle-blowers’ experiences are not far different to those of the protagonists of Irving’s novel. They appear to be idealists just as Hannes and Siggy are, but they, too, have carried the label of rebel, albeit with much harsher terminology — troublemaker, snitch, tattle tale, impimpi.

And although the derogatory labelling cast upon whistle-blowers has been a harsh form of retaliation, it is the lost freedoms that have cruelly impacted these whistle-blowers’ lives. It is because of their disclosures that they have lost freedom of movement, freedom of choice, and the freedom to live.

“Stan” and “John”, after their Gupta Leaks exposé, had to flee South Africa under cover, in fear for their lives. They lost their freedom to move to their own country in order to keep their freedom to live. Athol Williams faced the same fate as he exposed how Jacob Zuma used Bain & Company to drain large amounts of money from the South African Revenue Service.

Bianca Goodson and Mosilo Mothepu’s disclosures that detailed Trillian’s involvement in State Capture resulted in a loss of choice for both. They had rendered themselves unemployable because of their disclosures, limiting their choice to work. Mosilo, fearing for her life, lost the freedom of movement, often secluding herself within her home.

Altu Sadie also lost the freedom of choice, as a consequence of blowing the whistle on improprieties that occurred within the West African Ecobank. He had to resort to opening up a small coffee shop on the West Rand of Johannesburg to ensure the survival of his family.

Lives in turmoil

The worst consequence is that of losing the freedom to live. Babita Deokaran is one such prominent example. She was assassinated in a rain of bullets after dropping her child off at school because she was about to detail the abuse of Covid pandemic equipment and relief funds in the Gauteng Health Department.

One could present the argument that some whistle-blowers have emerged relatively unscathed after their disclosures. At face value, Simphiwe Mayisela would appear free of all burdens after his disclosure that uncovered irregularities within the Public Investment Corporation (PIC). But this is not the case.

Once a prime candidate for any job in cyber security, Simphiwe’s choice has become limited and, as a result, he had to start his own consultancy firm. Furthermore, the emotional scars of the public reprimand that he experienced at the hands of the PIC Commission of Inquiry (for sharing information regarding the apparent wrongdoing with the police) likely ran deep.

Cynthia Stimpel who, with her disclosure, stopped a dodgy R256-million deal from occurring at South African Airways (SAA), would also appear to be leading a life full of freedoms, now in a key position at The Whistleblower House. However, she also suffered immensely.

The trauma of her disclosure took a significant toll on her. Her former colleagues and friends turned their backs on her when she made her disclosure. She was labelled a “defiant SAA Treasurer” and, as a consequence, lost her freedom to work in the area for which she had spent her life studying and training. She was, however, fortunate and resourceful enough to eventually find a role supporting other whistle-blowers.

Whistle-blowers need essential protections

By setting free the whistle-blowers, we could likely avoid the fates experienced by previous generations. However, the freedoms need to be established and certain, not like the fate of the animals in Irving’s novel who were captured shortly after being set free.

To accomplish this, whistle-blower legislation needs to be revised by making provisions for adequate whistle-blower protection. Guidance for legislative revision should be found in trusted global instruments, and the effective provisions of those instruments that have been proven to work.

Civil society’s role, despite already having played a part in supporting South African whistle-blowers, should become more pronounced. This could be achieved by civil society organisations pooling their resources and working together to support whistle-blowers.

Media outlets and civil society organisations should also further collaborate to advocate for whistle-blowers. The role of academia should also not be negated, and scholars in the field of whistleblowing could provide insight into effective legislative revisions and support structures for whistle-blowers.

Past whistle-blowers should also play a role by aiding in developing further strategies for the support of future whistle-blowers, based on their own experiences.

But, to truly set the whistle-blowers free, a centralised agency would need to be established to efficiently organise these resources and reduce fragmentation. Maybe this would help future whistle-blowers avoid the fate of Babita Deokaran, much like we wish Siggy would have avoided his death in Setting Free the Bears.

In fulfilling its role in accomplishing the aforementioned, the SARChI Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg is hosting a panel discussion seminar on 10 October 2023, aptly titled Setting Free the Whistleblowers, with experts presenting.

The UJ seminar on 10 October 2023 with Cynthia Stimpel, Prof Ian Bron and Prof Tina Uys, and chaired by Dr Ugljesa Radulovic, will run from 14:00-17:00 at the Kerzner School of Tourism and Hospitality, Auckland Park Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg. RSVP Lorna Singh – lsingh@uj.ac.za

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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