South Africa’s reputation as an ethically dodgy and pervasively corrupt country is sadly becoming as much a part of our identity as our magnificent scenery, wonderful game parks and colourful people. And, as so often happens when something becomes this common place, we become desensitised to it. Our sense of disgust and moral outrage lessens with every story of corruption that emerges. We develop a shoulder-shrugging, “well, what do you expect?” attitude that makes even just the thought of ever eradicating corrupt practices from both our private and public sectors a seemingly unattainable pipe dream.
Of course, no one really wants to openly admit to this. Visit any corporate office and you’ll undoubtedly see posters displayed prominently on notice boards urging civic-minded employees to “See something? Say Something.” To not keep quiet if they suspect, or know, something untoward is going on in the corridors of power. These posters make vague promises of anonymity and protection, and offer “confidential” hotlines, underlined with the not-so-subtle, guilt-tripping assurance that you’re “Doing The Right Thing.” It’s all designed to inspire individuals with a supposed patriotic sense of duty and the satisfying knowledge that, if they blow the whistle, they’ll be doing not only their company, but their country, a huge service.
All of which sounds highly commendable on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very deeply to remove this idealistic veneer. Because, when you look at the way in which South African whistleblowers have previously been victimised, who in their right mind would dare take the risk?
Remember former ANC MP Vytjie Mentoor, who exposed the intimate nature of the relationship between the now disgraced Guptas and our former President, Jacob Zuma? Or Susan Daniels, Eskom’s former head of legal and compliance, who dared report on the decidedly suspicious goings on at the company? Both were fired and received death threats as a thank you for their courage.
There are many, many more examples just like this, and the message they send is unambiguously clear: Sure, speak out if you like, but be warned: the fallout will be severe.
No wonder South Africans aren’t falling over themselves in their eagerness to come forward.
How Did We Get Here?
Although this is not a new situation – as far back as a decade ago South Africa was ranked 55 out of 180 countries in a Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by Transparency Watch International – our most recent woes can surely largely be attributed to the example set by a president for whom ethics was somewhat of a foreign concept. After all, as the Chinese Proverb so tellingly states, “the fish rots from the head.”
As South Africans, we think little of slipping a few Rands to a greedy traffic cop to buy our way out of a speeding fine, so why would we suddenly grow a conscience when it comes to exposing high level corruption? With no clear example of transparency and good governance to inspire us, it’s not surprising that we’re not prepared to risk our lives, when “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is by far the safer option.
So, What Can We Do?
South Africa has put in place several piece of legislation designed to protect whistleblowers – notably the Protected Disclosures Act, which obligates employers to create internal policies and procedures for the proper handling of information relating to improprieties. The problem, however, is that there is no mechanism of enforcement to ensure this obligation is indeed being met. As a result, instead of being treated as courageous, good and brave citizens, whistleblowers are often seen as nothing more than troublesome tattlers.
And yet whistleblowing as a practice does work. It’s a highly effective way of exposing corruption and bringing change. Because when someone screws their courage to the wall enough to speak out, people listen. We just have to find a way to make sure this happens more often.
Other countries, notably the United States, have got it right. Their culture of not only protecting but actively rewarding whistleblowers dates back to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln passed the False Claims Act, which allocates a portion of monies recovered to a whistleblower following a disclosure relating to the defrauding of the government. In 2017, the US government paid out close to $400 million to whistleblowers who exposed $3.4 billion in fraud and false claims.
As far as South Africa is concerned, there is still a long way to go. Deborah Mutemwa-Tumbo, head of legal and investigations at Corruption Watch, believes whistleblowing in South Africa is a high-risk, low-reward endeavour.
“We rely fully on the person’s moral courage. There is no incentive,” she says.
Clearly, this needs to change, and fast. There are encouraging signs that our present government is taking bolder, bigger and further-reaching steps to expose and eliminate corruption in the public sector. But a lot still needs to be done. Until we can offer whistleblowers the guaranteed protection they need, how can we expect to see a paradigm behavioural shift away from fear, apathy or plain indifference when it comes to exposing corruption and wrongdoing?
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