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Dying to tell the truth: SA government fails whistle-blowers

Whistleblower Babita Deokaran was afforded no protection by the State, while apartheid-era assassin Eugene de Kock was placed in a safe house and paid a salary. Graphic: Viasen Soobramoney/African News Agency (ANA)

Whistleblower Babita Deokaran was afforded no protection by the State, while apartheid-era assassin Eugene de Kock was placed in a safe house and paid a salary. Graphic: Viasen Soobramoney/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 1, 2021


OPINION: The government needs to urgently walk the talk if the soft underbelly of our democracy, corruption and malfeasance, is to be eliminated, writes Baldwin Ndaba.

Earlier this year, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, which is tasked with probing state capture, heard shocking evidence from a secret witness on how the State Security Agency (SSA) forked out more than R200 000 a month to protect apartheid-era assassin Eugene de Kock.

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The secret witness told the inquiry that taxpayers footed the bill for De Kock's accommodation and protection at a safe house and even paid him a monthly "salary" of R40 000.

This is despite the fact that in October 1996, De Kock was sentenced to two life sentences plus 212 years in prison for crimes against humanity.

He was granted parole in January 2015, after spending 20 years in jail.

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Justice Minister Michael Masutha had said the former police colonel would be released "in the interests of nation-building”.

In contrast to the extreme lengths the state has gone to protect a killer such as De Kock, whistle-blowers who have put life and limb at great risk to expose corruption and malfeasance have been left to fend for themselves.

Gauteng Health’s chief director: financial accounting, Babita Deokaran, is the latest victim of a long list of committed citizens who chose to make their voices heard in the fight against corruption and put their lives on the line. Others include former ANC Youth League secretary-general and ANC councillor Sindiso Magaqa, Philemon Ngwenya who blew the lid on corruption in the Estina Dairy Farm Project and slain City of Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala.

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Deokaran was murdered outside her house, south of Joburg, on Monday last week.

She had returned home after dropping off her daughter at school.

Her alleged killers lay in wait and then they pumped multiple bullets into her body when she arrived home. She succumbed to her wounds in hospital hours later.

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News about her death drew outrage from a cross-section of society and firmly exposed the government’s incoherent approach towards protecting whistle-blowers.

While alive, Deokaran discuss the challenges of whistle-blowing to the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

This was retold by the foundation’s executive director, Neeshan Balton, who recounted how Deokaran shared information with the foundation after she was demoted from her position, indicating that she was seen as a “threat” because of the “high levels of integrity” she had maintained.

Balton said: “While we do not know as yet the exact reason behind her killing, it bears all the hallmarks of an assassination aimed at silencing a whistle-blower. Possible linkages to her anti-corruption-related efforts must be investigated,” Balton said.

In the wake of Deokaran’s murder, President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a review of the protection afforded to whistle-blowers.

Writing in the latest edition of “From the desk of the President”, he says: “Whistleblowers are important guardians of our democracy. They raise the alarm against unethical acts and practices in government and organisations.

“They speak out in good faith and with a reasonable expectation not only that action will be taken on their disclosures, but that they will be protected and not suffer victimisation or prejudice… It is clear that as the fight against corruption gathers momentum, we need to urgently review our current approach not only to witness protection but also to the broader protection of whistleblowers.”

The country’s former auditor-general Terence Nombembe, who is now part of the Gauteng Ethics Advisory Council (GEAC), was at the coalface of fighting corruption and instrumental in formulating anti-corruption policies. He has offered to use his knowledge to bring to an end to the rot in the Gauteng provincial government.

He said: “The GEAC commits itself to building on Deokaran’s courageous acts. We will do our utmost to advise the Gauteng government on how to develop a culture that enables more well-meaning citizens, to be courageous and stand up against malfeasance whenever it rears its ugly head.”

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) says Deokaran was one of the more than 320 witnesses in the ongoing personal protective equipment (PPE) tender corruption and procurement irregularities investigations in both the public and private sector.

SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said that like many South Africans, the government and civil society, the SIU was concerned about the safety of whistle-blowers, witnesses and SIU investigators.

“The SIU has put measures in place to ensure safety of witnesses and whistle-blowers.

“Furthermore, the SIU encourages witnesses to come forward and inform SIU investigators should they feel unsafe or should there be any threat to them, so that steps can be taken to protect them including invoking the Witness Protection Programme that the government has in place,” Kganyago said.

Public Service Commissioner Mike Seloane described Deokarin’s murder as an “orchestrated campaign by forces of darkness in South Africa, who are doing what they can to ensure that the public service is inefficient and ineffective”.

The sentiments expressed by Ramaphosa and his officials are cold comfort for the Deokaran family and the families of countless other whistle-blowers who have paid the ultimate price in defence of our democracy.

The government needs to urgently walk the talk if the soft underbelly of our democracy, corruption and malfeasance, is to be eliminated.

If the government can go to the extreme lengths to protect, for secret reasons, an apartheid-era killer like De Kock, the protection of the true guardians of our democracy should not be a difficult task.

It remains to be seen whether promises of protection for whistle-blowers will be taken seriously.

Whistle-blowers such as Deokaran are the true nation builders who have paid the ultimate price in pursuit of justice.

At the time of writing, Nhlangano Ndlovu, Phakanyiswa Dladla, Zitha Hadebe, Simphiwe Mazibuko, Sanele Mbhele and Phakamani Hadebe appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court in connection with Deokaran’s murder.

They have been charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition. The case against the seventh suspect was provisionally withdrawn.

* Baldwin Ndaba is a senior political journalist.