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A whistleblowing life

In her new book, The Whistleblowers, Mandy Wiener talks to a wide range of the people who have revealed corruption and malfeasance in government and business — often to their own disadvantage. In this extract she speaks to Thabiso Zulu, who exposed corruption in KwaZulu-Natal and testified at the Moerane commission of inquiry into political violence there. He is now in hiding.

Zulu would prefer not to be labelled a whistleblower, despite what his story says. He sees himself more as a human rights and anti-corruption activist.

“It limits one,” he says of the term. “It’s like you are having this information in your own surroundings or in your own space and you decide to go all out about it. That’s not what one has been doing over the years. My work entails quite a lot of defending human rights of people. I take corruption as something that steals the future of our own children, but further than that, steals the dream of our own people; but further than that, it destroys the human rights of people. But I am not saying I am not a whistleblower. I accept if that’s the term they think fits me well in the kind of work that I am doing, I am fine with it. But it’s not how I have labelled myself over the years.”

I think the point he is trying to articulate is that whistleblowing is a once-off occurrence, whereas he has pursued the role as a career. He has made it his life’s work to call out human rights abuses and incidents of corruption. It is what he does. “Yes, there are quite a lot of things that I whistle-blew, but it happened in the space of my human rights and anti-corruption work,” he concludes. As far as regrets are concerned, there are few.

“I think I took the right decision in most of the things that I have done. There are very few things that I regret. Among those things, what I regret is going to the Moerane commission not mentioning that I was uncomfortable to have it as just a commission of inquiry instead of having it as a judicial commission of inquiry, where they were going to have power to subpoena people, subpoena documents and phone records and other things. But besides that, if I were to be called to do it, I would do it again.”

Like some other whistleblowers I have spoken to, he sees his speaking out as a duty, a service that he is obligated to fulfil. He is almost militant in his approach to it. It is the struggle of his generation.

“I believe that it is the duty of every revolutionary to fight for genuine causes. It is a fight for all of us to make sure that future generations are not subjected to what is happening. I also believe that this is in defence of the future of our own children. Other African countries and other countries elsewhere in the world did not fail because those countries had black people or African countries were led by black people. They failed because men and women who were supposed to speak up when wrong things were happening decided to keep quiet, because they said they were afraid for their own lives. I think I took a right decision. Whatever I have gone through I will continue to wear it as a badge of honour.”

His greatest disappointments have been in elected leaders and politicians, particularly President Cyril Ramaphosa, who he says had promised in a phone call to protect him.

“I am only disappointed that I have been lied to, I was lied to by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He promised me protection on the 27th of October, one day after I had been shot, he promised me protection. I am disappointed that even in his court papers, he had [the] guts to say he didn’t offer me protection. There will be a day when I will prove to the nation and to him that indeed he did promise me. When I will prove, everyone will see what kind of a person he is.”

Zulu, like so many others, doesn’t believe whistleblowers get the necessary respect, acknowledgement and protection they deserve in South Africa.

“We are not asking for accolades, we are not asking for blue lights, we are not asking for financial reward,” he says. “It is a moral duty on our side. But I don’t think that we are given the respect we deserve.”

He has refined the art of disclosing information over the past few years. He has learned to cover his tracks and to always stay alert. Others can learn from this.

“I will continue to say that those who feel that they need to speak out, they must speak out, but they must always check when they are doing that, who are they talking to. Keep information in safe places, keep notes in different places. If they have got a chance, send it elsewhere, where it will be kept safe. Create enough networks and be careful of certain journalists who, when given information, they are serving certain people. They take the information that you give them, they go and tell the same people that you are talking about. Be careful of certain law enforcement agencies and agents that are defending corrupt people. But continue the fight.”

He hopes to inspire others to have courage to speak up and draws on the words of student activist Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, who was murdered by apartheid security forces: “No struggle can come to an end without its casualties.”

“They must always be prepared that there may be casualties, but even so, they must know that it is a price that is worthy to be paid. I still believe that people must not allow political gangsters, corrupt individuals, to win. They must not win. They must not steal the future of our children. The judiciary must play its role, it must not be bullied.”

Many would argue that Zulu falls on the near end of the spectrum of whistleblowers, those who embody virtue and integrity. He seems to have a sense of duty to call out corruption because it is absolutely the right thing to do, irrespective of the implications. Others may argue that he is only so passionate about pursuing individuals because he is fighting his own factional battle. He says he hopes to serve as an example to his young son, demonstrating right from wrong. I get the sense from him that he equates his struggle with those of veterans who have gone before him, who have fought against apartheid, against subjugation, against inequality. When we are finished speaking, I ask him what he will tell his son about what he has done.

“I will tell him that serving one’s country and choosing the cause and the struggle of the time is one important thing for any revolutionary. It is one important thing for any human being because there have been struggles that have been waged before. The issue of land, the issue of freedom. But the current struggle is a struggle of corruption. It must not continue, it must not be rhetoric. During his time, there might be other struggles. He must not be shy to lead in the front. I will be proud of him, whether I will be alive at the time or I will be gone, but I will be proud of him if he were to emulate my actions and actions of many others before me or after me who will stand for what they believed in, no matter the sacrifice.

“I will tell him that I will not leave for him any Porsche, any fancy cars, I will not leave for him money that is hidden in offshore accounts. Yes, I know that many people that I have been with in politics are having everything in the world that they want, they are having offshore accounts, are having beautiful houses because of being involved in corruption or being silent on corruption. What I will leave for him is a name of someone who made sure that he doesn’t keep silent when people of his generation, when people who stood for the truth, other whistleblowers, other human rights defenders, other anti-corruption activists were being victimised, persecuted, killed at the time when I decided to speak out. I would be proud if he were to emulate my actions.”
The Whistleblowers is published by Macmillan


Round this time last year, Deon Wiggett’s podcast My Only Story held listeners’ spellbound with his narrative of tracking and trapping the man who raped him when he was 17. His book details how that process began (with his own memories of the incident returning), how he worked out where the rapist was and what he was doing, and how he found the many others he had preyed upon. He fills in the background of places such as Grey’s College in Pietermaritzburg, a place that sounds like a petri dish of toxic masculinity. In collaboration with News24, as the podcast unfolded, the paedophile he calls “the bullfrog” (real name Willem Breytenbach) was cornered. What happened next is recounted in the book, making a riveting and sometimes nail-biting tale that is made more readable, and indeed more bearable, by Wiggett’s dark and wicked sense of humour. 


One of the founding editors of this publication, and now a journalism professor at Wits university, Harber constructs here a detailed account of several failures and successes in South Africa’s recent journalism practice. The sad tale of how The Sunday Times was played by, most likely, figures in Crime Intelligence, leading to its Sars “rogue unit” and other stories, is uncovered. It took the paper an unconscionably long time to retract this “fake news” and to apologise, after which much damage, to institutions such as Sars and to individuals’ lives, was done. A successful story is that of the #GuptaLeaks, which confirmed much of what had been investigated, particularly by amaBhungane, and revealed about the leading family of state capture. amaB, Daily Maverick and News24 worked together to bring this amazing trove of damning documentation to the public. The inside stories of how these stories came about it told by means of interviews with many of those involved, adding a human touch and offering an unparalleled insight into how our journalism works — or fails to work. The lessons for the future, and for an ethical journalistic practice, are clear to see.

THE LIE OF 1652: A DECOLONISED HISTORY OF LAND by Patric Tariq Mellet (Tafelberg)

In this radical revisionist history of the early days of colonisation on the southern tip of Africa, Mellet examines the processes of domination and dispossession that laid the groundwork for a deeply unequal and oppressive society. With the first colonists came slavery, and the continuities between slavery, colonialism and later segretationist and apartheid policies are clear; the legacy of slavery still haunts a modern South Africa. In his account of how colonists seized land from the indigenous inbaitants, Mellet also provides a picture of the Cape colony from inception to the late 1800s, with portraits of important indigenous figures such as Autshumao, Doman and Krotoa, players in this saga just as much as the Jan van Riebeeck vaunted in apartheid history. A challenging and provocative account, very much needed amid today’s political contestations.

THE AFRIKANERS: A CONCISE HISTORY by Hermann Giliomee (Tafelberg) 

More than 15 years ago now, historian Giliomee’s substantial work on the Afrikaner people was published to global acclaim. A television series followed. Now he has produced the book in a new form, updated and shortened to make it more accessible to those who struggled with the 700 tightly-packed pages of the first version. Starting with the arrival of 90 Dutch settlers in 1652, Giliomee shows how the Afrikaners came into being as a “volk”, how they adapted to life under the British empire — or fought to escape its rule. He documents the growth of Afrikaner nationalism, from the late 1800s into the middle of the 20th century, how they came to dominate the state and institute apartheid, as well as how they had to give up power in the face of African nationalism. 

ANXIOUS JOBURG: THE INNER LIVES OF A GLOBAL SOUTH CITY edited by Nicky Falkof and Cobus van Staden (Wits University Press)

At the online launch of this collection, scholar Abdoumaliq Simone spoke of the “rhythms of anxiety” that pulse through the city — Johannesburg, a city with a unique history, but representative of many of the issues that beset urban areas in the Global South. As Sisonke Msimang writes in her foreword: “In Johannesburg you never know what nightmare waits for you around the next corner …  Even at its swaggiest, the city is always looking over its shoulder.” Among the contributors, Baeletsi Tsatsi writes about travelling in minibus taxis “while female”, Njogu Morgan about cycling and identity in Johannesburg, Renugan Raidoo about gated communities, Mingwei Huang about the back rooms of Chinatown, and Falkof herself about that semi-mythical creature haunting suburban gardens — the “Parktown prawn”. Joel Cabrita and photographer Sabelo Mlangeni discuss photography and religion in the city, and Khangelani Moyou writes about “urbanisms of fear” in the Sol Plaatje informal settlement. An eye-opening tour of some of the undercurrents determining life in the so-called City of Gold.


Is Africa ready for the technological changes that will transform society across the globe, or is it in danger of being left behind? Marwala, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg and the deputy chair of the presidential commission on the foruth industrial revolution (4IR), takes a comprehensive and accessible look at what the impact of 4IR is likely to be, along with the continuities and discontinuities between the two industrial revolutions that have taken place so far and the emerging fourth. Focusing on artificial intelligence, he shows its applicability in fields such as banking and medicine. This book is about the future.

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS by Mandy Wiener (Macmillan)

Wiener has done much sterling work, in her journalism and in book form, on the corruption-related crimes that have bedevilled South Africa for decades, as well as the underworld generally. This book looks at the whistleblowers, those heroes who took huge risks to reveal malfeasance in government and other places. She speaks to these heroes and gets their stories, which often show how high the price was for their honesty and their ethical commitment to righting wrongs. Some, such as the man who tried to lift the lid on World Cup stadium corruption in Mpumalanga, were slain — they join the long list of killings in South Africa related to politics and corruption. Few, if any, of these cases ever reach a court. Others in Wiener’s book, such as the woman who blew the whistle on depredations at the Passenger Rail Service of South Africa, have lost friends and ended up isolated, with very little support from public institutions; government has almost nothing in place to help such people financially or psychologically, and going out on a limb like this can ruin a person’s life. Stories such as that of the Austrian man who revealed malfeasance in the Sanral e-tolls business, had fewer negative consequences, but all the whistleblowers here are taking huge personal risks — and it shouldn’t be like that if South Africa is to end corruption. A meaty and affecting tome.

SIX YEARS WITH AL QAEDA: THE STEPHEN McGOWN STORY as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies(Maverick451)

After a period of living in London with his wife, Steve McGown decided to head back to South Africa, by way of a motorbike ride that would take him from the Netherlands, across Africa, and all the way back down south. But he got no further than Timbuktu in Mali. There, he was kidnapped, along with others, by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a jihadist group operating in that region, at war with the Malian state. The six years he spent “sitting on a sand dune”, as he puts it, are recounted: the constant threat of death, the difficulties with his fellow captives, the desperate attempts to free him, and the survival strategies (including conversion to Islam) he used to get through this ordeal. That he can say he emerged from it a better person, more in touch with his real self, is remarkable. Parts of the tale are told by his wife, father and Imtiaz Sooliman of Gift of the Givers, the organisation that worked hard to negotiate his release. McGown’s difficulties adapting to life after he was freed, along with the bumbling of the South African authorities, are recounted too. An extraordinary and ultimately moving story.

A commissioner of his own

In The Unlikely Mr Rogue: A Life with Ivan Pillay, Pillay’s partner of many years, Evelyn Groenink, tells their story from the days of struggle in exile to the time of massive assaults on the machinery of state by those conducting state capture, particularly at Sars, where Pillay worked. In this edited extract, she recounts the beginning of the process of how Jacob Zuma foisted a new commissioner on the revenue service.

Then-president Jacob Zuma may have had plans for a Sars commissioner of his very own for some time already. It was during a holiday around 2007 that Ivan received a phone call from the office to inform him that, according to a certain high-level taxpayer, a customs manager at Sars had told him, the taxpayer, that he, the customs manager, was going to be the “next commissioner of Sars” and that therefore the taxpayer could safely make a deal with him. Ivan had been thoroughly puzzled. 

“That man was not even in the correct division to make any arrangements with taxpayers,” he told me, much later, when it had become public news that the manager was one Leonard Radebe and the taxpayer was Dave King, a billionaire who owed Sars vast amounts of money. It was also reported that Sars and King had reached a settlement.

Sars’s legal people dealing with King did not know what to make of the reported statement. Radebe denied he ever said such a thing and Sars put it down to a misunderstanding or misinformation by King. Nevertheless, Ivan informed then-commissioner Pravin Gordhan. 

Sometime later, however, on 9 August 2008, when the Sars general manager of corporate services, Oupa Magashula, visited his favourite Italian restaurant, Casalinga in Muldersdrift, he met the restaurant manager, who told him how nice it was to see Sars people again: just the previous evening, he had seen Mr Leonard Radebe here, “having dinner with Mr Dave King”. 

“Again we called Radebe,” Ivan narrates. “He was off work, saying he had flu, but he came anyway. It was a brief discussion. We told him that there was an allegation that he was in contact with King. He denied it. Since he said that he was not well, we asked him to come the next morning. When he came, after an hour of evasion and diversion, he confessed and we placed him on suspension. Shortly afterwards, he resigned.”

Investigations would later unearth that wheeler-dealer Glenn Agliotti, who always positioned himself close to powerful people, was involved in the scheme.  When such individuals found themselves in tax or legal trouble Agliotti often offered to “make things go away” for a fee. Agliotti, now apparently close to King, cultivated Sars manager Leonard Radebe as a handy friend. The fake draft settlement between Dave King and Sars that let King off the hook for a large part of his debt was drawn up with the help of a contact of Agliotti’s.

 Ivan wondered if soon-to-be President Zuma “might just have intimated to Radebe that he was the preferred choice”. When, in 2009, the “Broken Arrow” project — the disinformation campaign against Sars management and notably Ivan, Gordhan and Johann van Loggerenberg — came to light, it was found that one Mabheleni Ntuli was one of the plotters. 

“We learned later that Ntuli was also a member of Zuma’s kitchen cabinet,” he says, adding that “perhaps Radebe was in discussions with Zuma’s trusted associates”. 
The Unlikely Mr Rogue is published by Jacana

Emil in love

In The History of Man, prize-winning author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu traces the life of one man in an unnamed African country. In this extract, Emil remembers a moment of love.

Like most people who have truly loved, Emil Coetzee knew the exact moment that he fell in love for the first time, and would remember it always. He was standing outside the government-issued, bungalow-style house with whitewashed walls and no veranda that he called home.

His back was against the wall and his eyes were surveying the vast veld — this beautiful and golden great expanse — that lay before him. It was a windy day that promised rain and the clouds were gathering grey in anticipation of the coming downpour. He peered up at the sky in time to see the clouds part and let the sun shine through brightly. God’s visit. That was what his mother called this phenomenon. The sun had been there the entire time, hidden by the clouds. Emil marvelled at this always-being-thereness of the sun and then reached his hand up to the sun as if to touch it. The sun disappeared behind the clouds again, but now Emil knew that it was there and felt comforted.

He gazed out at the veld and took in its vastness. The wild wind made the elephant grass sing and swoon before it came and kissed his face. Emil closed his eyes, placed the palms of both his hands against the whitewashed walls, took a deep breath and let the beauty of all that surrounded him enter his body. As that beauty travelled through his body, it turned into something else, and he knew that this thing that he felt in every fibre of his being, this wondrous and rarefied thing, this thing called love, was something that he would cherish all the days of his life.

Emil was six years old when he, at that moment master of all that he surveyed, beheld the veld and fell in love with it. This was to be his first concrete and complete memory. There would be other memories too, of the British South Africa Police outpost at the foot of the Matopos Hills, which was where the government-issued, bungalow-style house with whitewashed walls and no veranda that he called home was situated. He remembered the sundowners that his parents, Johan and Gemma Coetzee, hosted every Friday evening and how his mother, in her black drop-waist dress and red cloche hat, would frenetically flap and flail the Charleston before his father joined her for a foxtrot promenade, while Emil, wrapped and rapt in admiration, happily sipped on lukewarm lime cordial.

He remembered walking into the singing elephant grass of the savannah, losing himself in it, all the while knowing that he had found his true self, that this was his natural habitat. He remembered his black shadow travelling the most beautiful land ever created as he explored the environs of the Matopos Hills. It was at this site that he could find all the heroes he had learnt about in school: Cecil John Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, Charles Coghlan, Allan Wilson and the brave members of the Shangani Patrol. It was here at “World’s View” that they were buried or memorialised. The Matopos Hills was also the place where the god of the Matabele resided and where, accordingly, they came to ask for blessings, which for them always came in the form of rain. Proud men in loincloths and regal women in beads — rain dancers — would ascend the hills, then for hours there would be the sounds of drumming, stomping, ululating and shrieking, followed by an absolute silence that came before the rain dancers would descend the hills, looking, to Emil, as he watched in wonderment, as if they were carrying the solemn-looking clouds on their heads, shoulders and backs.

But probably the most magnificent of all the things at the site were the San cave paintings that told the intricate story of the hunt, that is, the story of how man and animal moved towards and away from one another in a rhythm that became a dance of respect, honour, love and ultimately death. His father would take him to the Bambata, Nswatugi and Silozwane caves, hoist him on his broad shoulders and together they would decipher the paintings — writing, really — on the wall. The narratives were realistic and fair: sometimes man outmanoeuvred animal, sometimes animal overpowered man. Emil always imagined himself to be part of the hunt; of all the things in the world, this was what he desired most, to test his might and mettle against that of an animal. In his dreams, he was something beautifully wild and ferocious. He ran barefoot through the grasslands, carrying an assegai in his hand and knowing exactly when to strike at the heart of the dark, looming creature in his environment. He was a hero and the creature was something out of a fable. When he awoke his heart would be pounding with an excitement that made him jump out of bed and run around the small patch of land that constituted their front yard, yowling and brandishing an imagined weapon as he prepared himself to vanquish the creature of his dreams. 
The History of Man is published by Penguin


STILL LIFE by Zoë Wicomb (Umuzi)

Thomas Pringle was an 1820 settler, yet one who soon bucked the system. A poet and educator, he also had the distinction of being the first newspaper proprietor to have his papers banned in what would become South Africa. The Cape colonial government also shut down his school in Cape Town. Later in life, as an anti-slavery campaigner in Britain, he helped the former slave Mary Prince to write an autobiography that became a controversial bestseller. Pringle, and this part of his life story, is evoked by Zoë Wicomb in her new novel, Still Life, through the efforts of Pringle’s biographer — and the time-travelling Sir Nicholas Greene, a character from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. 

A metafictional feast, then, from the author of the beloved You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and the winner of the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Fiction Writing.

SHUGGIE BAIN by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

The winner of this year’s Booker Prize is a gritty tale of poverty, alcoholism and abuse in 1980s Glasgow. Shuggie is a 16-year-old who works in a supermarket. His mother, Agnes, is an addict spiralling ever downwards; dad is an abuser. His sister got away and moved to South Africa, and his brother is trying to teach him to “act normal”. The Guardian wrote: “Shuggie Bain comes from a deep understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent, showing a world rarely portrayed in literary fiction.”

PARADISE IN GAZA by Nic Mhlongo (Kwela)

The Gaza of the title is in Gazankulu, not Palestine. This novel is about a man who, pulled between a village wife and a city wife, returns home for a funeral. Then his eight-year-old son disappears, and the course of his life changes. Complex and enthralling.

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