Whistle-blowing a change catalyst for SA

Whistle-blowers who testified at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture included, from left, former partner at Bain & Company Athol Williams, former Trillian Financial Advisory CEO Mosilo Mothepu and former Bosasa boss Angelo Agrizzi. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archives

Whistle-blowers who testified at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture included, from left, former partner at Bain & Company Athol Williams, former Trillian Financial Advisory CEO Mosilo Mothepu and former Bosasa boss Angelo Agrizzi. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archives

Published Dec 7, 2023


Fuzile Jwara and Dr Ugljesa Radulovic

The socio-political composition of a state necessitates change when that very state finds itself caught within a period of turbulence.

This turbulence can emerge from any force that disrupts the healthy functioning of a country. South Africa has, unfortunately, been victim to much turbulence throughout its history.

We need only examine apartheid rule, which crippled everyday life for the ordinary South African. It was a system based on racially oppressive, segregationist policies and high-level corruption. Change came at the hands of a triple transition – a political, economic and social one.

For the outsider it appeared to be a miracle transition, though the situation on the ground was radically different, marred by spates of violence.

Nevertheless, the transition did result in a positive change for South Africa’s citizens, with the freedom to move, vote and live being granted to people of all creeds and colours.

A more recent turbulence set South Africa off its post-transition trajectory.

It occurred during the rule of Jacob Zuma, coming to prominence in his second term as president. This time it entailed the capture of the state, where statesmen colluded with private actors to execute control over crucial elements of the state.

This required the capturing of state-owned enterprises and the augmenting of state policies for the benefit of an elite few. Change was, yet again, necessitated. However, it was not a transition that would bring about this change but rather individuals that saw the malice in the actions of wrongdoers.

These individuals were not personally connected, yet appear to have been driven by similar forces of motivation.

They blew the whistle on wrongdoing relating to state capture, to persons they believed were able to effect action.

It was the disclosures of whistle-blowers that contributed to the then public protector Thuli Madonsela writing the State of Capture report.

The report was the catalyst that led to the promulgation of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State. The commission itself produced a report. This report identified the severity of state capture, detailing how it reared its ugly head into every facet of the South African state. It also identified the public procurement system as deeply flawed, and in need of refurbishment. Importantly, it commended the role that whistle-blowers played in bringing such information to the fore.

“Stan” and “John” delivered the hard drives that constituted what would become known as the Gupta Leaks. Mosilo Mothepu, together with Bianca Goodson, detailed how Trillian was using insider information (through its business partners) to gain favourable contracts and even bet against the state. Simphiwe Mayisela’s disclosure highlighted that the Public Investment Corporation was brought to the behest of the organisation’s powerholders.

Cynthia Stimpel, with the aid of Outa, was able to stop the looting of SAA funds, because of the nature of her disclosure. Athol Williams fingered Bain & Company as a firm used by Zuma to loot the South African Revenue Service. Angelo Agrizzi exposed how Bosasa used bribery to capture the Department of Correctional services.

Critically, the Zondo Commission revealed deep underlying issues of corruption in the South African state.

But, one could argue that state capture predates the ANC-led government. As such, the state of South Africa is structured in a manner that incentivises collusion between state institutions and the interests of private capital.

Comprehensively, this historical analysis elucidates the structural deficiencies that were overlooked at the dawn of democracy.

From this perspective, one places whistle-blowers as individuals that recognise the need to address the decay of state institutions.

Therefore, state capture merely reflects the historical relationship between the state and private sector, where the government facilitates the encroachment of capital interests into the very functions of the state.

These disclosures resulted in the liquidation of at least one high profile company Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), which had been contracted to distribute social grants until September 2018. Several other wrongdoers were identified, with charges being pursued against them. It is undeniable that whistle-blowers were the spark that led to the advancement of South Africa’s democracy, a catalyst for positive change.

The act of whistle-blowing has also been fundamental in exposing other cases of corruption, often leading to attempts to remedy the wrongdoing.

More recently, the case of currency manipulation by local and international banks has really sparked some online discussions on blatant corruption. This illustrates the important role of whistle-blowers, as we can only speculate the extent of the damage done to the South African economy from years of currency manipulation, which has further exacerbated socio-economic disparities and a decline in living standards.

However, the tendency has also been that these change agents have been subjected to severe reprisals.

These reprisals have taken the form of social retaliation, work-related retaliation, legal retaliation, and even physical retaliation. This is paradoxical, as those very agents that fought to advance the democracy of South Africa, find themselves living on the societal cusp and often fearing for their lives.

The solution to this requires many interventions, with a need to revamp whistle-blower protection legislation, offer comprehensive and coordinated support to whistle-blowers, and build an institution dedicated to the service of whistle-blowers.

* Jwara is a Master’s candidate and Radulovic is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg

Cape Times