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Business Against Corruption: Focus on whistleblower sup...

South Africa

BUSINESS MAVERICK

Business Against Corruption: Focus on whistleblower superstars and the costs of graft

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan delivers a keynote address at Daily Maverick's Business Against Corruption event on 27 June 2019 in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

At the Business Maverick’s Business Against Corruption event in Johannesburg on Thursday, the people on the frontlines came out swinging. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan raised the moral issue of personal choice, the private sector’s corrupting role and the costs to the wider economy. A central theme was that while the scale of the challenge is huge, brave women and men stand ready to take up the fight.

Gordhan, who gave the opening keynote address, spoke about old-fashioned accountability — something that certainly seemed to be in short supply during the lost Zuma years.

Whether you are in the private or public sector, at the end of the day we are talking about human behaviour. You have a choice to become rotten or not. Every one of us has a choice to participate in corrupt activity or not. Every one of us has a choice to listen to an instruction that would lead to corruption by themselves or the entity they are involved in. Every one of us has a choice to be a whistleblower or not… It is about human choice at the end of the day,” he said.

He also noted the private sector’s role in facilitating corruption (one panellist would later quip that corruption is like adultery, it takes two to tango) and the costs in terms of lost government revenue — costs that could make a huge difference if the money could be recovered.

A lot of businesses have been involved in the sagas that have been unfolding at the South African Revenue Services. SARS lost R20-billion to R50-billion of revenue on an annual basis. If this money can be recovered, fiscal revenue could change, the deficit would change and if we grow the economy, even the debt-to-GDP ratio could change.”

That puts things in perspective — while a corrupt few have been enriched, the country as a whole would be richer without this scourge, with more funds available for education or health or roads or housing, and have a better debt-to-GDP ratio, the kind of thing that rating agencies and lenders focus on.

The crucial role of whistleblowers was also touched on by Gordhan, who said it was not just up to the government to protect them.

It’s not only the state’s responsibility to look after whistleblowers… do corporates look after them and treat them kindly, do they promote whistleblowers, or shut them up and marginalise them? But whistleblowers are the ones that have made the choice to be honest and stand up for something that was right,” he said.

Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee, who moderated a panel on whistleblowers, compared them to Trevor Noah in the world of comedy — in short, the superstars in the war against corruption, the ones who deserve the applause and should take a bow.

Cynthia Stimpel, the SAA whistleblower and former group treasurer, spoke movingly about the “extreme support” she received from her family and how she had a sense of purpose when the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) took up her cause after she was suspended for doing the right thing. “We need whistleblowers to come forward,” OUTA CEO Wayne Duvenage told the conference.

Liezl Groenewald, senior manager of The Ethics Institute, said its latest Business Ethics Survey showed that a third of employees in the corporate sector witness misconduct, but only half of those report it. Fear of victimisation, of the kind that Stimpel endured when she was suspended at SAA, and perceptions that entities won’t do anything about it are the main reasons people don’t blow the whistle.

One hopes, for South Africa’s sake, that more superstars step up to the stage and do the right thing. BM

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