/ 9 December 2022

The vital role of whistleblowing in achieving good governance

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The government and other stakeholders such as the media, trade unions and civil society organisations should champion public information campaigns and initiatives to encourage whistleblowing.

South Africa’s transition from colonial rule to democracy has been marred by several corruption scandals and high crime rates. The National Development Plan 2030 identifies corruption as a significant threat to the rule of law. Corruption curtails the equitable distribution of resources by undermining core democratic principles and impeding social, economic, and political development.

Semantic scholar Peter B Jubb defines whistleblowing as a “deliberate non-obligatory act of disclosure, which gets onto [the] public record and is made by a person who has or had privileged access to data or information of an organisation, about non-trivial illegality or other wrongdoing whether actual, suspected or anticipated which implicates and is under the control of that organisation, to an external entity having [the] potential to rectify the wrongdoing”.

The government has adopted several strategies to promote accountability and combat corruption in the country. For instance, parliament has enacted laws that attempt to address the problem. In addition, the 1999 National Anti-Corruption Summit resolved “to develop, encourage and implement whistleblowing mechanisms, which include measures to protect persons from victimisation where they expose corruption and unethical practices”.

Furthermore, our country’s Constitution serves as the overarching framework for protecting whistleblowers. Akin to this, the Protected Disclosures Act (PDA) of 2000 is the key legislation relative to whistleblowing. The PDA mandates that every employer should have internal procedures for receiving and addressing cases of malpractice. 

Hence, both public and private organisations are obliged to adopt a system for whistleblowing. The ultimate objectives of the PDA are to safeguard employees from retribution arising from whistleblowing in the workplace, to offer recourse for those who suffer such, and to outline responsible channels for sharing information. 

However, one of the major challenges faced in the anti-corruption drive is that people are usually too intimidated to “blow the whistle” when they observe corrupt and unlawful activities. Those who are courageous enough to blow the whistle are often victimised with little or no recourse. 

In addition, South Africa’s legal framework is limited in scope as it has some gaps in protecting whistleblowers. For instance, the law does not specify any sanctions for those who do not comply with their legal obligations to protect whistleblowers. More so, there are no penalties imposed on those who retaliate against whistleblowers.

Importance of whistleblowing

In a functional democracy, those in authority must be held accountable and this requires whistleblowers. Whistleblowing is one of the best ways of detecting and preventing malpractices such as corruption and fraud and should be encouraged because it has several benefits.

Firstly, whistleblowing can help to prevent and reduce cases of fraud. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), more than 40% of all cases of occupational fraud globally are exposed by whistleblowers. 

Moreover, individuals implicated in unethical and illegal acts can be arrested and punished for their wrongdoings. When co-workers realise the punishment that has been meted out to their colleagues, they may be discouraged from committing fraud and corruption. Thus, a culture of whistleblowing serves as a deterrent to fraud because people know that any corrupt act may have devastating consequences.

Furthermore, whistleblowing is an early warning system designed to protect an organisation from potential risks. It reduces both the financial and reputational costs of fraud and corruption. For instance, corruption tarnishes the image of the organisation or government. A positive culture of whistleblowing is essential to the success of any risk management system. 

Additionally, according to the ACFE, whistleblowing is more effective in detecting fraud when compared with traditional tools of governance such as external auditing. External audits manage to detect about 5% of fraud cases, while whistleblowers have helped to uncover 45% of fraud cases globally. 

More so, whistleblowers can prevent harm and protect the rule of law by disclosing wrongdoing within an organisation. For successful litigation and prosecution of corruption cases, there is a need for credible evidence, which does not just appear out of thin air but must be provided by people. 

Finally, whistleblowing is regarded as one of the most effective and economic strategies for protecting an organisation’s or a country’s resources. The costs of implementing a whistleblowing programme are usually very low compared with traditional methods of accountability such as external auditing.

Why don’t people blow the whistle?

A major disincentive to whistleblowing is the fact that people are afraid of being labelled a “sneak” or to be accused of “breaking ranks” with their colleagues. They may also be afraid of being requested to provide irrefutable evidence when they blow the whistle.

In addition, whistleblowing often comes at a cost as whistleblowers risk their careers and their personal safety in order to expose corruption and fraud. Whistleblowing is sometimes regarded as a form of betrayal. Consequently, whistleblowers are usually considered traitors and, in some cases, they may be blacklisted, removed from their workstations and harassed. In extreme cases, they may be sued, arrested or even murdered. 

Way forward

The government and other stakeholders such as the media, trade unions and civil society organisations should champion public information campaigns and initiatives to encourage whistleblowing. Whistleblowers should not only be protected, but they should also be honoured, actively supported and, where needed, financially compensated. 

Moreover, to facilitate a culture of whistleblowing, our country’s legal framework must be reviewed. The law must protect whistleblowers from retaliation for disclosing acts of misconduct.

On Friday 9 December, International Anti-Corruption Day, we honour all whistleblowers, not only in South Africa but globally, who played and are still playing a crucial role in the fight against corruption by aiding in the detection of corruption cases. We also pay tribute to several bold, courageous, and fearless individuals who paid the highest price for “blowing the whistle”. 

Pregala Pillay is a professor in the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. 

Chris Jones is chief researcher in Stellenbosch University’s department of systematic theology and ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership. This piece is part of a book project on Whistle-Blowing and Whistle-Blowers: Promoting Ethical and Accountable Society

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