Story of a whistleblower: ‘Baba, do you think you are about to die?

“I don’t think that I will come out of my own situation alive. I know powerful people hate me and they want me dead, and I live any day as the last one on Earth and have already prepared my family members for it. My health is also taking a knock, but I am not complaining. I still maintain and believe that I did what was right. 

“Talking to my 10-year-old son the other day, about what will make me happy about his life in future, he asked me: ‘Baba do you think you [are] about to die? Mama told me that people who killed your friend want you dead.’ 

 “I could not hold my tears or come to a better position to explain properly to him. I have now accepted my fate. The end for many whistleblowers under the current regime is prison, death or self-imposed exile. All of them are painful ends, but now seem inevitable for many, if not all.”

These words were posted by Thabiso Zulu, an anti-corruption campaigner and whistleblower, in reaction to the news that another member of the growing whistleblower community, Athol Williams, had fled South Africa in fear of his life.

But for the fact that they are both South African citizens, their respective stations in life in one sense could not be more different: Zulu is an anti-corruption activist from KwaZulu-Natal with but a high-school education. Williams is highly educated, and formerly a senior lecturer in business ethics at the prestigious University of Cape Town.

The truth about power

In another more vital sense, their stories are strikingly similar. Both have spoken truth to power about corruption in their respective domains. Both have discovered the same truth about power: it has no defence against truth. It can only retaliate and attack.

Williams is now safe somewhere else in the world. He has issued a statement, entitled Forced to Leave, explaining his reasons for leaving the country. But Zulu is living in hiding somewhere in KwaZulu-Natal: his enemies are after him, but he is still actively involved in exposing ongoing corruption and wants to stand his ground. For as long as he is alive, he will not give rotten cops and corrupt politicians the satisfaction of getting him out the way.

There is a lot more work to be done.

Zulu is passionate about serving poor and vulnerable people, and has exposed massive corruption in several areas, including the looting of municipality resources, poor service delivery, police brutality, and politically motivated killings of activists by politicians in KwaZulu-Natal.

In October 2016, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal set up the Moerane commission of inquiry to investigate the killings. Zulu fearlessly testified before the commission, exposing mass corruption and looting in the uMzimkhulu municipality, which had led to the killings of several political activists and councillors.

The heat was turned up in 2017. Zulu has been arrested, tortured and had those close to him killed. This was because he and his colleagues launched an anti-corruption campaign against local government officials involved in awarding illicit municipal tenders in uMzimkhulu local municipality. They had determined that a syndicate of council officials and politicians created fake contracts with companies that did no work but were, nonetheless, paid, thereby defrauding the council of millions of rand. Zulu’s work led to eight council officials being charged with fraud, corruption and money-laundering. It also led to one of his colleagues, ANC Youth League secretary general Sandiso Magaqa, being gunned down by a hitman linked to politicians and businesspeople implicated in the scandal.

It made international headlines in The New York Times. See “Hit men and power: South Africa’s leaders are killing one another”, published in September 2018, followed by “South Africa killings should be investigated, anti-corruption agency says” three months later.

Zulu is also instrumental in fighting and exposing police brutality and the use of public funds by politicians to silence dissent. In October 2019, he escaped an assassination attempt that left him wounded and hospitalised.

Undeterred by this attack, in June 2020 Zulu mobilised dozens of community members to protest poor service delivery in ward 29 of KwaZulu-Natal. The protesters’ motivation was that the lack of basic services such as clean water, sanitation, electricity, housing and employment after more than 20 years was a betrayal of the sacrifices so many made for freedom. Zulu was arrested and spent a night in police cells. He was also reportedly pepper-sprayed and badly beaten, allegedly for taking too long to open the door when the police knocked.

As a result of his campaign, The Violence Monitor, an organisation led by social worker, anthropologist and researcher Dr Mary de Haas demanded an investigation into cases of police brutality in KwaZulu Natal.

She has been monitoring political violence in the province since the dark days of apartheid.

Zulu warms when he speaks of her. “She has been my pillar of strength and a mother to me for more than 20 years now,” he says. 

The admiration is mutual.

“Thabiso wrote his final high-school examinations under very trying circumstances, De Haas says. “It was due to the civil war that was raging in the ’80s and early ’90s between militants in the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP]. He was very involved in the ANC Youth League, but his best friend was an IFP member. Through their friendship, they were able to get information that implicated the apartheid police in providing weapons to the IFP.”

Zulu had huge ethical leadership potential. Were it not for the political violence that destroyed his higher education prospects, he had the makings of becoming another Williams. Instead, he continued as a full-time activist for ongoing political transformation and, over the past two decades, has found himself having to blow the whistle on corruption in the very party that has been his political home.

Zulu is not able to live a normal life because of the numerous threats he receives almost every day. This has affected his family and friends, who also live in fear. He sleeps in different locations each night to evade assassination by hit men.

But Zulu refuses to be silenced. He vows to continue fighting for a country that is corruption-free to honour the sacrifices of all those who were killed in the struggle for liberation. He wants his 10-year-old son and the generations that follow to know a different South Africa than he knew as a young boy.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has litigated on Zulu’s behalf and won a landmark case in protecting the right to life. In March 2020, the Pretoria high court issued a judicial order to compel Minister of Police Bheki Cele to order the police to provide protection to Zulu. They did so but only in their conventional witness protection, which isolated him from his fellow activists. He opted to rather rely on his own support system.

De Haas says Zulu has never had the protection that the minister of police was ordered to provide. “ Cele has a constitutional obligation to prevent crime. Even President [Cyril] Ramaphosa had personally promised Thabiso he would make sure the police would protect him,” she says.

That hasn’t happened.

The SAHRC has now redoubled its commitment to advocate boldly for whistleblower protection. At a recent conference of the Forum for the Institutions Supporting Democracy Professor Bongani Majola, the chair of the SAHRC, called for “solidarity in ensuring better protection of the rights of whistleblowers in our country”.

After citing Zulu’s case, as well as that of another persecuted whistleblower, Prince Obilana (who blew the whistle on misconduct and cover-ups of widespread sexual abuse by school teachers in Mpumalanga), he said litigation on their behalf had shown “weaknesses in the legal framework protecting whistleblowers” and committed the SAHRC to working with whistleblowers and other stakeholders for a “comprehensive overhaul” of the current legal framework.

The whistleblower community hopes such an overhaul will shut down any wriggle room for the executive to evade its constitutional obligation to uphold the social contract between citizens and state, by ensuring a rigorous application of the rule of law by all organs of state. There really is little point in whistleblowing if it does not. Zulu’s case is proving to be emblematic. If he does not prevail, other whistleblowers have little chance of vindication.

Retaliation by character assassination

Predictably, Zulu’s enemies have intensified their efforts to silence him. After being unsuccessful in killing him physically, they have resorted to character assassination instead. This echoes the tactics used against former police reservist and whistleblower Aris Danikas who fled the country in 2008 with damning evidence of police atrocities and human rights violations allegedly committed by the Cato Manor organised crime unit under the command of General Johan Booysen. Danikas’s story has been widely covered internationally. He was featured as Whistleblower of the Week in June this year.

On 18 October, police spokesperson brigadier Vish Naidoo announced that Zulu had been arrested again and charged with “assaulting a pregnant woman” at an ANC political rally. In a country in which gender-based violence is endemic, Zulu believes this was shrewdly calculated to sow doubts about his integrity.

After his release on bail, he made a frantic Sunday morning call to me.

“It was a set-up, John. The police are using an incident where we were attacked to further their aims. They have done this before. They illegally seized my cellphones to hack into them to download all the information stored on them.”

He had no doubt that the charges would not stick when (and if) a trial ensues. He has video evidence of the incident. His greater concern was that the lives of other whistleblowers may have been seriously jeopardised. The police who seized the phones now have access to confidential information his supporters had shared with him.

Naidoo did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s requests for comment by the time of publication. 

Despite my many years of experience in counselling people in distress, this conversation was unusually challenging. How does one provide a safe, confidential space to a client when there is the real prospect that someone was listening into our phone call?

“Thabiso, you now know that you are part of a joined-up group of whistleblowers. That is sure to worry your enemies far more than it worries us”.

Remembering my fellow social worker Brené Brown’s profound wisdom on the true nature of power, my words were as much intended to reassure him as to disconcert his enemies.

“People who resort to ‘power over’ tactics of intimidation have a fundamentally flawed understanding about the true nature of power. It is not a finite resource like a pie that has to be divided up and distributed by an overlord to retain their loyalty. ‘Power over’ strategies are unsustainable especially in a country like ours with constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of association, expression, and all the other rights in our internationally admired Bill of Rights. 

“Those rights do not — and never will — belong to [the] government. Not even the Constitutional Court owns them. They belong to people — equally irrespective of their status or authority. Crooked police officers and the corrupt politicians who pay them off can only violate your rights, not take possession of them. It is by concerted citizen action that they are actualised,” I said, remembering a speech by former UN High Commissioner for Human Right, Mary Robinson, that had turbocharged my activism when I met her in 2006 at a business and human rights conference. “You are demonstrating that in practice.”

Zulu sounded somewhat mollified, and I sensed his pulse rate was declining, probably in inverse proportion to that of any spooks who happened to be listening in.

“Power is an infinitely renewable resource if it is exercised as ‘power with’ one other,” I continued. “It becomes a force of nature, against which your enemies have no defence. They can only attack”.

That insight has now become a shared awareness in the larger whistleblower community within which I work. The connective tissue of solidarity has now also brought Danikas into the empowerment process. He brings not only his hard-won personal experience, but the association he now has with Transparency International and as a recent honorary fellow of Blueprint for Free Speech.

Thus, when news broke that Williams had put himself out of reach of attack, it only made us more determined to stand in solidarity and be mindful of any “divide and rule” tactics.

Although Williams and Zulu have never met, and are now even further apart geographically, after telling Williams about Zulu’s situation, his warm response evoked a sense of calm assurance within me. I could easily imagine the two brave men embracing one another as if they were long-lost friends, united in their shared quest to amplify the power of truth, in deepening solidarity.

Postscript

Zulu has launched proceedings in the Pietermaritzburg high court to obtain an urgent interdict to compel the South African Police Services (SAPS) to hand over any confidential information they have that could prejudice him and his network and to prohibit any use of it. The SAPS were late in filing its responding papers, and Zulu is feeling that he has again regained the upper hand.

Williams has just announced that his book that lifts the lid entirely on Bain and the capture of South Africa is now in bookshops in South Africa, and online. Titled Deep Collusion, it elaborates on his testimony at the Zondo commission.

The book comes as a surprise, but that is because Williams did not want any pre-publicity lest lawyers for Bain and Company tried to prevent its publication. 

He says: “We make a big mistake to consider Bain simply another foreign company that extracted economic rents. I believe its involvement in bringing South Africa to its knees through state capture was much more insidious.” 

This is an abridged and edited extract of an article first published by Whistleblower Network News at whistleblowersblog.org

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John GI Clarke
John G Clarke is a social worker, lay theologian, filmmaker and writer seeking to ‘write’ the wrongs of the world by ensuring that human rights acquire meaning as a basis for restorative justice and peacebuilding.

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