/ 29 September 2020

SA needs a speak-out culture and whistleblowers are recognised as patriots

As it stands, the law does not protect whistle-blowers adequately.
Success demands effort, but specifically effort expended on the right ventures for the right reasons — this is worth remembering when times are hard, such as when I blew the whistle on my employer for withholding information relevant to the state capture enquiry

One of the greatest barriers to speaking up is the lack of culture to do so and the stigma associated with doing so. Whistleblowers are not applauded or celebrated, but rather othered and ostracised. They are seen as troublemakers. They are pushed to the fringes of society rather than raised aloft as heroic citizens. It takes courage and an enormous sense of civic duty to speak out. For this, people should be properly acknowledged and rewarded. This could be a simple accolade; or it could be a financial reward. What the whistleblowers’ personal stories have shown us is that fundamentally, there must be a cultural shift. There has to be a sea change in how society treats whistleblowers, how they are perceived and what reception they get. Instead of being viewed in an overwhelmingly negative light, the concept has to be a positive one. We need to cultivate a “speak-out culture”.

We have to change the way we in society respond to whistleblowers — not by treating them as outcasts, pariahs, impimpis, traitors or troublemakers, but as courageous, ethical, heroic citizens with integrity. We should all want to emulate them.

Researchers from the Gordon Institute of Business Science and the University of Nottingham suggest that proactive ways to acknowledge and celebrate whistleblowers should be explored to dilute the stigma and encourage others.

Many of our interviewees raised concerns about how whistleblowers are portrayed and perceived, including in the media. There was a suggestion to establish a database of whistleblowers to recognise their courage and expertise in their industries and professions, and to encourage their employment as they should be seen as an asset to an organisation. Another suggestion was to include whistleblowers in high-profile awards such as the President’s Order of Luthuli.

Corruption Watch’s David Lewis advocates for a culture shift that would see whistleblowers being appreciated and applauded for their contributions to society instead of being demonised and treated as deviants.

“I think what they should do first is glorify them. They should get a telegram from the president, or a civic award or whatever the case may be. One of the things we objected to in the new Act [the Protected Disclosures Act or PDA, also called the whistleblowers Act] was about those who impart information that is not true being treated in the same way as the person whom they blew the whistle on had their information been true. We objected to that,” says Lewis.

“There should be an experimentation with offering rewards. That can be by the bestowal of a civic award or praise from high above, and/or with a monetary award. You should build in safeguards to ensure that the people who provide information in bad faith or malice, or knowing that it is false, either to get the money or to avenge themselves on some other issue that they’d had with the target of the whistleblowing, they should also probably be punished for that. I think there should be a high bar on establishing whether they were truly in bad faith or not.”

The reality is that if a whistleblower is seeking recognition, plaudits, awards or celebrity status, they are just not going to find that in South Africa at the moment. 

“I think it is still a cultural change,” says human rights lawyer Alison Tilley. “The temptation to blame the messenger just seems to be an overwhelming one. It’s like you’re part of the group, the group works, we’ve all found our role and here’s this person, and often they’re not easy people. They’re people who have an internal, very strong sense of what they have to do and what needs to be done and they find it very difficult to shrug their shoulders and look the other way. It’s a very particular kind of personality and sometimes they really aren’t the easiest people to get along with. And you can see how people would be kind of ‘ugh, so and so raising this issue again’, and that just seems to be almost like a default response. It’s that culture of blaming the messenger, of not setting up systems in which you take the feedback from employees seriously. There are often very good reasons why you don’t do that; I mean, if you have an employee talking about corruption in the workplace and you’re implicated, it’s not going to go well.

“It’s just not an enviable position. I mean, some will be recognised after the fact, down the line, you know it was so-and-so who broke the story on, or who leaked the memo, or who came forward and spoke out. If whistleblowers act because they are hoping for public acclaim and recognition, they’re very much on the wrong track. The reason people blow the whistle is because they have to, they have an internal moral compass which doesn’t allow them to do otherwise. And also because they want to see the wrong righted. They want to see whatever is wrong fixed. That is often a very big, hard thing to achieve.”

In 2007, South African lawyer Brenda Stern was appointed as the director of Diversity Works, based at the London Development Agency. Diversity Works was a £10-million flagship programme of the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Within a short while of taking on the role, she uncovered corruption in the procurement and management of the programme. She raised the alarm about serious irregularities in the programme, which was overseen by the mayor’s equality adviser and personal friend, Lee Jasper. In what became known as the City Hall Scandal, she claimed that funds had been misappropriated and provided evidence to prove her claims. She took on Livingstone in a bruising fight, which included the mayor publicly threatening her personally. For her trouble, Stern was forced out of her £75 000-a-year job and was libelled with labels such as “a very embittered former member of staff “ who bullied her employees. When she insisted on due process being followed to establish the veracity of the claims of bullying, they were mysteriously determined to be “unfounded”.

Stern is now an attorney in Johannesburg and a public interest activist. Like others, she is in favour of a remuneration model for whistleblowers, because experience shows that once someone blows the whistle, their career is over. The money they receive would not only address their financial security, it also, as part of a fine corporations will pay, acts as a deterrent to corporates. She also believes that whistleblowers’ acts are acts of patriotism and should be publicly acknowledged as such.

“Currently the contrary is true — corrupt MPs can exacerbate the situation of a whistleblower, by exercising their parliamentary privilege, which protects them from any claim for libel they make in Parliament. The press can then also report those comments because the protection extends to them. So any MP who is in the pocket of a company in the crosshairs of a protected disclosure investigation becomes a mouthpiece for them in Parliament. And unless the whistleblower has briefed and secured allies in Parliament to defend themselves and challenge any comments, they are unable to defend themselves, barring finding a sympathetic and equally brave journalist to give them a voice.

“The fundamental problem with the very low numbers of whistleblowers in South Africa, compared to the high levels of known corruption, is not the PDA). It is also not an issue of culture, education, information campaigns or security for whistleblowers. It is because fundamentally there are no consequences for those who have been exposed, only dire consequences for those who have taken a clear and courageous moral stand. Our corrupt fuckers get a golf holiday, a tan, dialysis on the state and their pensions paid out to their families. It’s a disgrace.

“Until we start seeing people going to proper jails, doing hard labour that benefits the community, for example, building roads, clearing trash in shackles and bright prison suits and their assets are seized, auctioned off and the money used to repay the victims plus the whistleblower, we will never see people coming forward to expose corruption. 

“Until the South African government, judiciary and police start taking issues of corruption seriously, there is very little incentive to step onto the moral minefield. South Africa needs to adopt the Singapore legislative and policy model, which transformed Singapore from one of the most corrupt countries to the least corrupt Asian country. One of the cornerstones of their success is their zero-tolerance approach to corruption at a societal level. People will not speak truth to power if they continually see that power prevails, especially political power. Only the bravest and boldest will do the patriotic thing and protect our country. And that continues to be a stain on our democracy.”

Stern has taken it a step further. She’s thrown down a challenge to corporate South Africa and public institutions to demonstrate their commitment to corporate governance and good ethics by hiring whistleblowers in high profile positions where they can shape, monitor and manage anti-corruption policies and practices.

“The reality is that South Africa, like every other country in the world, doesn’t have the moral integrity or courage within the business community to see a whistleblower as an asset to their business and say, ‘If that person blew the whistle on their company, I’m hiring her on my board as an indication of how much we value employees who promote an ethical culture in our company.’ They are always treated as a traitor or a pariah. Someone who broke the unspoken code of the corporate boys’ club: ‘never squeal’.

‘The solution, for me, is to actually go to the captains of industry and influential corporate leaders and say here are some of the people who have been whistleblowers. They blew the whistle on corruption/unethical conduct in company XYZ. We want you to show some corporate leadership, governance, integrity and morality and hire them. We want you to put them on your board. We want you to rehabilitate them in the eyes of the nation.

“We are missing the essence of what whistleblowing is actually about. It is to prevent harm, or further harm. We’ve missed the fact that the core benefit of having whistleblowers, and a robust whistleblowing culture, is that these brave people help save jobs, save the economy, save shareholders, save the taxpayer and the government from financial harm.”

Stern argues that if corporate South Africa is really committed to corporate governance, they need to demonstrate that in practice.

“My challenge to corporate South Africa is this: how many of you are prepared to say you are really committed to cleaning up our corporate culture? To the companies, here is the story of the whistleblowers. What they did saved the company, saved the shareholders. Where are you, corporate South Africa, in terms of rewarding them? I would go to the president and say, ‘These are the whistleblowers who saved the country. Give them one of these national honours’.” Whistleblowing is an act of patriotism. Of public service. These are the people who are prepared to put their head into the shark’s mouth. We need to embrace, thank, honour and rehabilitate them.

“No whistleblower,” says Stern, “ever, ever comes out unscathed.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.