Editorial: Who will guard whistle-blowers?

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. (AFP)

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. (AFP)

It’s not easy being a whistle-blower. Take the examples of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. In South Africa, a Ms X is facing the wrath of her former employers for blowing the whistle on some of the rapacious activities of the rich and powerful people who form the “state capture” elite.

Even Cabinet ministers who obstruct more accumulation by this elite, as former mining minister and ANC heavyweight Ngoako Ramathlodi revealed this week, are likely to get shafted. Soon after the events Ramathlodi alleges took place, he was replaced as mining minister by Gupta-connected Mosebenzi Zwane, and in the most recent reshuffle Ramathlodi was dismissed from the Cabinet.

Ramatlhodi’s account is as follows: when Ramathlodi was mining minister, Brian Molefe, who is back in the job he had then, as Eskom chief executive, and Eskom chairman Ben Ngubane allegedly tried to twist his arm to cancel mining licences given to mining company Glencore. The effect would have been to put pressure on Glencore to sell its Optimum mine to the Guptas so they could supply coal to Eskom. The highly suspect manoeuvres in this deal, including Eskom’s involvement in a way partial to the Guptas, has been detailed already – more is doubtless going to emerge.

Among the information now emerging has to do with the Gupta-linked financiers Trillian Capital Partners, the claimed recipient of large sums of money from Eskom, which coincided with a R600-million cash crunch faced by Gupta-owned Tegeta Resources as they attempted to grab the Optimum coal mine. It seems that, at that juncture, Eskom funnelled them the money.

This week we report further on how “state capture” works, and how it enriches a favoured few at the expense of the public. The whistle-blower in the Trillian case seems to have real evidence: dates, invoices, emails and bank details. All of this is crucial to any investigation of what happened in the Optimum tangle, but none of it will get tested in a court of law if the whistle-blower’s former bosses get away with their total onslaught on her.

For nearly a year, one woman – we call her Ms X because she cannot legally be identified – fought a lone battle against the Trillian bosses. The company’s army of legal experts could fob off one damning exposé after another and wiggle out of any accountability for its receipts of large sums of public funds. This company scored millions of rands in questionable payments from parastatals, something former public protector Thuli Madonsela wanted examined in the second phase of her state capture investigation.

Trillian has threatened Ms X with arrest for theft of “confidential company documents”, perjury and even cybercrimes. This hardly encourages whistle-blowers to come forward with evidence of malfeasance, even in cases of such momentous importance. There are gaps in the law offering protection to whistle-blowers, and the prosecuting system does not always seem keen to treat their cases seriously.

All whistle-blowers, whether they expose the rot at the level of their local municipality or at the highest levels of political power, must get legal, technical or financial support – and protection.

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