Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG - The culture of fear is to blame for public and private sector employees holding back from exposing wrongdoing within their organisations, according to a lobby group.

The Anti-Intimidation and Ethical Practices Forum (AEPF), which launched its inaugural ethics survey yesterday (Monday), said the private sector and government employees admitted to being intimidated and feared for their lives for “doing the right thing” by reporting unethical behaviour.

AEPF chairperson, Dr Claudelle von Eck, the chief executive of the Institute for Internal Auditors SA, said the survey found that 91% of public sector employees and 92% in the private sector agreed that it was their personal duty to report unethical behaviour.

However, 34% said they preferred to remain anonymous when reporting bad behaviour, compared to 30% who said they would forego anonymity. This showed that people were afraid to report unethical behaviour for fear of being dealt with.

“We underestimate the fear whistleblowers experience, we place unrealistic expectations on those who see that things are going wrong,” said Von Eck.

The survey also found that 28% strongly agreed that leaders in the public sector are ethical, compared to 48 percent favouring their private sector counterparts. Other findings included 9% of participants agreeing that leaders in the public sector were ethical, compared to the 66% which agreed that private sector leaders were ethical.

Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu, who attended the survey launch, pointed out that while fraud and corruption were unethical, so were some “laws and procedures” implemented by captains of industry to “deny others opportunities”.

Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis said the survey was important because of its focus on ethics. The survey, he said, was not about being found guilty in a criminal court. “It's about whether you know what's right and what's wrong.” He admitted, however, that there were “grey areas” on issues such as “when is a gift a bribe and when is lobbying key lawmakers exercising undue pressure”. His advice was that, “if you're not prepared to have your conducted report in the Sunday newspapers, it’s best not to engage in it”. 

Lewis said the greatest single obstacle to containing the scourge of corruption was the lack of consequence in engaging in it. 

“We will continue to pressurise professional bodies to apply their standards vigorously. We are interested to work with professional bodies in exercising their sanctions because our law enforcement bodies are not doing so... that would help restore the image of the private sector as a whole,” said Lewis.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners SA chief executive, Jaco de Jager, said the government lost R105 billion to fraud and corruption annually.

The AEPF was aimed, among other things, at providing a platform for professional bodies to raise concerns about acts of corruption and intimidation, influencing government legislation, and advocating for improved governance and accountability.