Whistleblowers are seldom seen as heroes. Instead, they are often viewed through a negative lens, described as troublemakers, disloyal employees, traitors, snitches and, in South Africa, as impimpis or informers. They risk denigration and scorn, not to mention dismissal from their positions, finding their careers in tatters.
With corruption and fraud endemic in democratic South Africa, however, whistleblowers have played a pivotal role in bringing wrongdoing to light.
Mandy Wiener’s new book, The Whistleblowers, shines a light on the plight of this special class of justice-seeker, advocating for changes in legislation, organisational support and social attitudes in order to embolden more potential whistleblowers to find the courage to step up.
Read an excerpt from her book, which takes a closer look at the death of Sindiso Magaqa and the shooting of Thabiso Zulu, whistleblowers on political killings in KwaZulu-Natal.
Vibrant and tenacious, Ziyanda Ngcobo is a senior political reporter at Newzroom Afrika. She has spent the past few years investigating political violence in KwaZulu-Natal and has been to uMzimkhulu many times to interview victims and their families. She knows the lay of the land. Her podcast on the death of Sindiso Magaqa interrogated the motives behind his death and attempted to unravel the mystery. ‘Political violence in KwaZulu-Natal is mysterious. It never reaches a conclusion,’ she tells me. “Justice still hasn’t been served. People when they do get arrested eventually get released from prison, or the justice system continues to fail either the families or even whistleblowers who actually come forward with crucial information. Because of the nature of political killings in the province, it’s such that it’s actually a network of many people working together and so getting to the bottom of cases has become very difficult.”
As Ziyanda explains, political violence in the province often boils down to the scramble for resources. It has its roots in historic standoffs pre-1994. “There just hasn’t been a way to fully stop the violence, it’s now just for different reasons. So before 1994 it was ANC versus IFP, whereas it’s now about who gets to become a councillor and who gets access to local government resources in municipalities and the patronage networks that have been established there.”
Having closely monitored the Magaqa story, I ask Ziyanda whether or not he should be considered a whistleblower. After all, he apparently raised the alarm on corruption according to his friends. She contemplates this for a moment.
“It’s what his friends say he was, but I don’t know the nature of what it was he exposed. I’d never been part of any of those ANC branch meetings where he was said to have raised the issue of the funds that were meant to go to the Memorial Hall that were going elsewhere. Also, there are many theories that people have around why they believe that Sindiso Magaqa was murdered. When I did my investigation there was also discussion about that he was having a love affair that turned sour with the wife of one of his good comrades at the time. Others will tell you that it was a business deal gone sour, that he was part of some illegal business dealings. But Thabiso Zulu will tell you that’s just a narrative that was established to distract people from the real reason behind why he was killed, which is that he spoke out against corruption within the uMzimkhulu municipality,” says Ziyanda. The reporter first came across Thabiso when he spoke at Sindiso’s memorial service. She was astonished by what he and Les Stuta said at the time.
“There was a hotly contested ANC conference in 2017… President Cyril Ramaphosa versus Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and there was just a lot of killings at the time. Many of them, they weren’t high profile, but Sindiso Magaqa’s was high profile because of the role he played in the ANC Youth League. His service was carried by most broadcasters and Thabiso Zulu and Les Stuta used the service to actually speak about the reasons they believe were the motive behind his killing. They said quite emphatically and boldly at the time, given the number of killings that were taking place, that they believed Sindiso was murdered because he blew the whistle on corruption in the uMzimkhulu municipality, related to the building of the Memorial Hall and that funds had actually been stolen.” Ziyanda had heard rumblings and murmurings about this corruption, but few were willing to go on the record about it. Thabiso, on the other hand, was outspoken.
“Thabiso also became very popular because he was one of the few people at the time that was bold enough to publicly say what was kind of an open secret or something that people would talk to you about off the record but weren’t willing to speak to you publicly about,” she says.
“I would consider him a whistleblower because he actually had documents, he gave names. And after interacting with him at a later stage he had certain documents and evidence to back up his claims, which he gave to the police. My understanding is that the police also tried to approach him but the level of mistrust between him and the police was such that there were certain people that he wouldn’t interact with. Thabiso Zulu at the time also said some cops were part of the entire scam to cover up what happened with the money, despite reporting it to the Hawks as well. He claims the network goes that deep.”
There is a different side to the story, Ziyanda says.
“The politics within the Harry Gwala region in KwaZulu-Natal has always been quite volatile and violent. Through its history and through its nature and some people, if you speak to people on the other side who will defend the municipal officers, they will tell you that people like Magaqa and Zulu were just upset they weren’t in charge of the process because they, too, would have wanted to embezzle funds. But, I mean, that’s all just hearsay.”
Ziyanda mentions an investigation on this matter conducted by the office of the Public Protector. Towards the end of September 2017, following Sindiso’s death and funeral, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane decided to conduct an “own initiative investigation” into the allegations due to the public interest and the seriousness of the claims. She was concerned about the imprudent use of public funds as well as the allegations of deaths of councillors who may have blown the whistle on the matter. As part of this investigation, she interviewed Thabiso Zulu and Les Stuta and acknowledged the importance of these whistleblower disclosures in her probe. A year later, towards the end of 2018, the Public Protector released her report. The damning findings in her report supported Thabiso’s allegations. She concluded that the correct procurement processes weren’t followed, that there was no competitive bidding process in the appointment of the contractors for the hall, that the expenditure was irregular, and the conduct of the municipality was improper. Mkhwebane also found that the minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and the SAPS had failed to provide security for both Thabiso and Stuta and that this “exposed them to the risk of being assassinated”. In addition, she found that the conduct of the minister and the SAPS was improper and there was an undue delay, gross negligence and maladministration. Her remedial actions included that both men be given state-funded protection. Cele filed papers in court taking the report on review.
“As things stand, Mr Stuta and Mr Zulu continue to live their lives on the run, watching over their shoulders at every turn,” spokesperson for the Public Protector’s office Oupa Segalwe told African News Agency (ANA) at the time.”‘These are cases where we should be seeing the activism of the likes of Casac [Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution], Freedom Under Law, Outa and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, but we are not holding our breath.”
When the police failed to protect him, despite a directive to do so, Thabiso surrounded himself with his own protection, his friends providing support and resources. He moved around with bodyguards. Les Stuta also resorted to finding his own bodyguards when he realised the state wasn’t going to help him.
“My friends realised my life was in danger, so they provided me with bodyguards. I’m feeling safe now, but I still need the state to provide me with bodyguards because my friends have now compromised their own security,” he told a reporter at the time. He had received death threats and was warned not to sleep at his house. During 2017 and 2018, Thabiso pleaded for protection from the state. He says both the SAPS Crime Intelligence Unit and the State Security Agency did threat assessments on him.
“Both reports came back positive. They said my life was at serious risk. Then they made recommendations that I must not be protected by police in KZN. They made recommendations that I must not be protected by security companies from KZN. But they also mentioned that I must be protected by private protectors, which are state sponsored. Those were the recommendations of the state. That was not what I wanted. I was lied to, I was promised things.”
Thabiso says during this period he was liaising directly with State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo about the threats against him. “It was highlighted at the time that I may be killed anytime from then. So that was in August. In September, same thing happened. Unknown cars with GP number plates will be seen in different places. I used to sleep in different areas, as I still do. They will be seen, I would suffer direct surveillance,” he explains. There were more sightings of dubious characters and dodgy cars with strange number plates. Thabiso remained outspoken. On 24 October 2019, he delivered an address at an anti-corruption march. The following day he was issued with a warning.
“A text message came through to one of my confidantes to say after the meeting I must make sure that I go and see a certain person. The person who was asking us to see him in the meeting was a bodyguard of a certain politician. We went and saw him. Unknown to him, we were recording him in the conversation. He told me that within very few days from now, I will be killed. He put it blunt, he said it is done and dusted. The plots are at a higher stage. You will be killed.”
A day later, Thabiso was shot. DM/ ML
Mandy Wiener lives and works in Johannesburg. She has worked as a multi-award-winning reporter since 2004. The Whistleblowers is her fifth book, following on from Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored (2018); Behind the Door: The Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp Story (2014, with Barry Bateman); My Second Initiation: A Memoir (2013, with Vusi Pikoli); and the groundbreaking Killing Kebble: An Underworld Exposed (2011). The Whistleblowers is published by Pan Macmillan South Africa. (R310).
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