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Action can dignify this tribute to Babita Deokaran, and whistleblowers everywhere

I am a social worker in private practice who has found myself providing psychosocial counselling and support to whistleblowers. Together with other members of the South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice, we are developing a specialisation to support whistleblowers.

In my practice I have counselled whistleblowers who need a safe, confidential place that can be an open space for them to share their stories and clarify their options on how best to ensure truth and justice prevails.

The key lesson I have learned from them is that our long walk to freedom will only become longer unless we face up to the truth and integrate it into our stories.

I was not fortunate enough to have known Babita Deokaran personally. I wish I had. But I have been fortunate to know and listen to the stories of many other whistleblowers, including all those who testified at the Zondo commission into state capture — Cynthia Stimpel, Martha Ngoye, Tiro Holele, Themba Maseko, Mosilo Mothepu, Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, Bianca Goodson and Angelo Agrizzi, and those who applied to, but never got the chance, like whistleblower Aris Danikas who had to flee the country to seek refuge in Greece because of the evidence he had of police atrocities committed by the now-disbanded Cato Manor specialised crime unit in 2008.

This tribute honours all these amazing souls.

This quote from Ben Okri, the great Nigerian-born poet and storyteller, never fails to encourage them to be resilient: “Stories are the secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truth, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

They attest to some flowering in their individual lives. However the flowering of the nation still eludes because those with power and privilege have not faced their own truth.

What will it take for South Africa’s future to flower?

Looking at photos of Deokaran, I notice that she had a pronounced bindi on the ajna or brow chakra. As I understand Hindu faith, it symbolises higher consciousness of truth, deeper than most ordinary people seem to grasp.

I wish I had more of that as a social worker. All I can rely on is a sixth sense that we call practice intuition. With 40 years of professional practice, I have learned to pay attention to it.

So, what is my practice intuition telling me now?

First, to keep writing. Intuition comes from a place that is pre-verbal and hard to articulate. One feels it in the gut. The act of writing helps to clarify it. Two months ago, after listening to the stories of four whistleblowers facing an ongoing strategic litigation on whistleblowers action, I felt the urge to write something and put it in the public space. The article was published by the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader site. The title proved to be chillingly ironic. “Whistleblowing counters the corrupting tendency of power, but whistleblowers are left vulnerable and at risk”.

Hopefully Deokaran’s murder will result in more people in power reading and acting on it.

Premature victory: Tlholo Phakoe (left) celebrates in Rustenburg after former mayor Matthew Wolmarans and his co-accused Enoch Matshaba were found guilty of murdering his father, whistleblower Moss Phakoe (on the poster). However, the pair successfully challenged their conviction in 2013. (Herman Verwey/Gallo Images/City Press)

How do we make sense of Deokaran’s death?

Hindsight is an exact science. Social workers work with our clients so that they may gain insight from hindsight.

In situations where conflicts have turned violent, I find it helpful to use my imagination and do what Marty McFly and Doc Brown did in the Back to the Future movies and imagine travelling back in time to an inflection point that was the start of a trend that has now culminated in violence in the present. I look for a moment when truth clashed with power.

When did the trend start”? What date would I set in the dial of an imaginary time machine so that I could “go back to the future” and try to change the course of history?

The date would be 25 years ago, in September 1996, which was a few months after General Bantu Holomisa had testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)  that a fellow cabinet minister, Princess Stella Sigcau, had accepted a bribe of R50 000 in 1987 to shut her up about the R2-million bribe that Sol Kerzner had paid to Chief George Matanzima to get gambling rights from the Transkei bantustan for his gambling empire. President Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership were deciding what to do. On 30 September 1996 they decided to expel Holomisa. It was a bad decision that has had serious consequences.

Madiba was perplexed by the decision but had his reasons for supporting it. The ANC disciplinary committee said Holomisa’s offence was his failure to report the matter internally within ANC structures before going public. Notwithstanding that, Sigcau suffered no consequences other than bringing disgrace to the amaMpondo royal family and ultimately weakening the ANC’s legitimacy.

In whistleblower Themba Maseko’s recent book For My Country he explains how, when he was director general of the department of public works, his own relationship with Sigcau, who was his political head deteriorated to the point of becoming untenable.

“I sought an audience with [then-president Thabo] Mbeki to seek his intervention. He undertook to look into the matter and meet with the minister as soon as possible, but I never heard back from him. I suspect Sigcau somehow got to know of my meeting with Mbeki, since our relationship deteriorated even further. She cancelled all our weekly meetings and declined all my requests for meetings.”

Gunned down: Ex ANC MP Andrew Feinstein told the author ‘we must never forget the sacrifice made by Babita in her quest for ‘accountable governance’ and demand that ‘the … powerful people who ordered her assassination suffer the full consequences of their … actions’. (Fani Mahuntsi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

By definition a whistleblower is somebody who reveals wrongdoing. I believe Holomisa’s expulsion was the inflection point that started the ANC’s long downward slide. That was when the ANC ceased to be a leading force in the liberation movement and became just another political party that cared more about power and privilege than justice and truth. Twenty-five years on the party has brought the country to tremble on the edge of becoming a failed state. Had a culture of truth-telling been nurtured within the ANC, and Sigcau sanctioned instead of the truth-teller being expelled, perhaps Babita Deokaran, Moss Phakoe, Jimmy Mohlala and other whistleblowers would still be alive today.

It wasn’t long after Holomisa’s expulsion that the ANC sold its soul to the arms dealers by accepting bribes and funding for the ANC’s election campaign in the 1999 general election. We only know about that because, as Andrew Feinstein explains in this conversation Leaking and Speaking Truth to Power, two fellow ANC MPs blew the whistle by reporting to him in strict confidence what they had discovered. Feinstein was the ranking member of the ANC in parliament’s special committee on public accounts (Scopa). He insisted on an unfettered inquiry, but Mbeki blocked that from happening. Feinstein explains that he wasn’t the whistleblower. He was simply the medium of a message that the ANC had effectively been captured by international arms dealers.

If Holomisa’s sin was going outside the party to make his disclosures, here was an instance of loyal ANC members speaking truth within power, by blowing the whistle to Scopa via Feinstein. Their identities have never been disclosed, but we all know what happened to Feinstein. He became a conscientious objector against the way the ANC was handling the scandal and before he could be expelled he resigned as an ANC MP. 

That was the end of his political career, as he narrates in his book After the Party. He left the country where he continues to speak truth to power. His second book Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade probes the deeper truths about how the international arms trade thrives on sustained and systemic corruption. It has been made into a documentary film earning him a listing among the 100 most influential people in the world working in armed violence reduction by Action On Armed Violence.

Feinstein sent me this message of solidarity to share.

“We must never forget the sacrifice made by Babita in her quest for honest, accountable governance in our beloved country. We must demand that the corrupt, powerful people who ordered her assassination suffer the full consequences of their murderous actions. And while we hope that Babita rests in power and in peace, we must thank her and all whistleblowers for their sacrifice as we redouble our determination to drive corruption, deceit and injustice from our democracy.”

Note he said, “our beloved country”. He might not live in South Africa but South Africa still lives in him, and he is committed to supporting whistleblowers in any way he can.

The news that former president Jacob Zuma, serving a sentence for contempt of court, has been released from prison on medical parole, caused me to reflect on how much damage he did to the country. I am sure his health is indeed poor. But more to the point is that the whole nation is still suffering a chronic degenerative illness as a direct consequence of the ANC telling itself, and the nation, stories that are lies.

“After all, there is such a thing as truth,” Feinstein quotes Victor Serge from his book The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

I recently finished watching the documentary Shadow World.

One of the voices of reason and hope who features in the documentary is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. He is a former war correspondent for the New York Times, a public theologian and author of several books. Like Holomisa he also found himself in trouble with his employer for speaking his truth and was disciplined by the New York Times, which forbade him from speaking about the Iraq War, which he believed was a great folly. He chose to resign.

Hedges makes three points that I found extremely consoling and encouraging.

He quotes the French intellectual Julian Benda, who says in his book The Treason of Intellectuals that: “The more you make compromises with those who serve privilege and power, the more you diminish the capacity for justice and truth.”

We need to be rebels with a cause, the cause of truth. But our rebellion will only be effective if, after having named and unmasked the powers, we strategically engage the powers, as another public theologian, Walter Wink, wrote. That is what whistleblowing is about.

However, to sustain that whistleblowers need hope.

Hedges quotes Augustine of Hippo, the great African bishop.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Listening to whistleblowers, I am hopeful for the future because they have given birth afresh to these two daughters. However, Brené Brown, a fellow social worker, cautions that “anger is a great catalyst for action but a very poor lifetime companion”. How can courage be sustained, other than by allowing anger to consume us?

Hedges explains that the only way we can sustain ourselves in this quest for justice and truth, is to allow love to take hold of us. Love not in the sentimental and romantic sense, but the true love that sustained Martin Luther King Jr and every other speaker of truth to power who has managed to have a lasting impact.

What does engaging the powers mean for us as South Africa trembles on the edge of the abyss of becoming a failed state?

Murdered: Former Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala (pictured) and provincial official Samuel Mpatlanyane were killed in 2009 after they tried to expose collusion in the building of the Mbombela stadium

After a recent ANC lekgotla, it was reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa warned the party to be “armed and ready” in anticipation of a scathing indictment of the party in the report of the Zondo commission on state capture when it is released next month. He said the party must prepare its messaging to counter perceptions that his government is corrupt.

Whatever blame the commission will apportion to his predecessor’s government, Ramaphosa cannot escape scrutiny for the Covid-19 scandals. It was on his watch that Babita Deokaran was killed.

Besides ensuring that Deokaran’s killers and the masterminds behind them are brought to justice, the most powerful message he could send to the nation is that he has himself become a whistleblower, in the sense of a referee blowing the whistle on foul play.

That would mean allowing anger and courage to be born anew in him.

Recalling Ben Okri’s words about facing and owning one’s truth, Ramaphosa needs to start handing out yellow and red cards to all members of his cabinet who deserve it. He is going to have some vacancies to fill.

But engaging the powers also means promoting restorative justice.

To make good the deep 25-year-long betrayal of constitutional values, imagine what a wonderful symbolic gesture it would be for Ramaphosa to reopen the substance of the TRC and reappoint Holomisa to his cabinet. It would show that he is in fact serious about promoting a new culture of whistleblowing.

I believe that the time has again come for Ramaphosa to invite all parties into another Codesa-type process to again create a government of national unity, with people of integrity from all parties who cherish truth and justice over power and privilege.

That is how I hope we can make meaning from Deokaran’s death, and help her 16-old-daughter accept that her mother did not die in vain.

History does not need to continue as an endless tug of war between power and liberty, because liberty means nothing unless it is conjoined with truth. True liberation starts with facing and emancipating the deep truths within us — however embarrassing they may be — not perpetuating lies. It means allowing that truth to be born in our hearts, flow through our veins and rejuvenate our hope for the future. I am convinced we will never know and realise the aspirations in our preamble to the constitution (that Ramaphosa helped to script) of building a democratic society unless the injustices of the past 25 years that started with the expulsion of a whistleblower are also recognised.

Power can only be constrained by the intertwining of truth and liberty. Only when whistleblowers are celebrated rather than murdered will we be able to say with Martin Luther King Jr: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, free at last”.

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John Gi Clarke
John GI Clarke is a social worker, freelance writer and lay theologian. Sometime filmaker and fulltime dad and hubby. His work is connecting people, managing Ideas, choosing Life

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