Honesty under siege

For a country that espouses transparency and accountability, and is constitutionally committed to them, our record on the treatment of people who raise the alarm over wrongdoing is tattered.

A picture has emerged over the years of loathing for those who have the courage to speak up when they see malfeasance, and their victimisation. Much is said about the need for whistleblowers, that they are heroes. But they often end up with hostility where gratitude and praise would be more appropriate.

Many of them, isolated, shunned, facing official wrath and targets of counter-strategies, probably find themselves wishing they had not blown the whistle. Their fates, both in the public and private sectors, have been shameful.

Some have been banished to misery through bully strategies, some have been intimidated, others have been subjected to both. Some have even been killed. Vicious reaction to whistleblowers, a pattern not unique to South Africa, is clearly calculated to silence those with consciences.

These fierce reactions also make lies of all those platitudes about propriety and tributes to whistleblowers. Those with consciences are by now keenly aware of the nasty consequences of their honesty.

It all amounts to a wicked pattern of systematic discouragement.

A case in point was the public protector’s rescue of a Justice Department employee who had almost nine years of hell after reporting thieving colleagues in the Master’s office at the Pietermaritzburg High Court. She was victimised, had her pay stopped, was then fired – and lost her house and had her water and lights cut off as a result. Her health suffered, as did her children. She was made to feel like anything but a hero or patriot.

The public protector intervened once, in 2010, crafting a deal with the Justice Department for the whistleblower. This did not materialise. A second intervention, and another deal, announced last week, will see her reinstated at another office, an apology from justice, and disciplinary steps against errant officials in this saga.

This, from the department upholding our justice system? It is enough to terrify citizens and even the most dutiful whistleblowers.


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