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Impoverished State Capture whistle-blowers beg banks fo...

South Africa

CRUEL, CRUEL COUNTRY

Impoverished State Capture whistle-blowers beg banks for relief

Former employees of state-owned enterprises and big corporates who blew the whistle on State Capture sacrificed their careers and livelihoods to do the right thing. But many of them are now desperate, destitute and unemployable, reduced to extending begging bowls to survive.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Cynthia Stimpel was the group treasurer of South African Airways (SAA) — until she blew the whistle on an unlawful R256-million contract in 2016 and lost her job. Unable to find employment elsewhere, she was giving yoga classes to make ends meet until Covid-19 put an end to that meagre revenue stream.

The former Eskom head of legal and compliance, Suzanne Daniels, who revealed the extent of the Guptas’ involvement in the parastatal to Parliament in 2017, says she “literally ran out of money” in December last year. She has received a summons for her car.

Masimba Dahwa, who was the chief procurement officer at SAA until his refusal to sign an unlawful R1.5-billion Swissport contract cost him his job in 2016, has been unable to find permanent employment since. In 2019, his family home in Pretoria was auctioned by the bank.

Now a number of other whistle-blowers are joining Stimpel, Daniels and Dahwa in calling on the major banks to write off their debt.

In a letter authored by Stimpel, the whistle-blowers state: “Most of us will lose our cars, our houses for doing what is right… Corporates and banks should show that standing up [against] corruption and wrongdoing does actually have a positive outcome.”

Stimpel told Daily Maverick 168 that the banks are “hounding” the whistle-blowers to pay off debt they have no way of settling, because they appear to be effectively unemployable.

“When I left SAA I obviously looked at my debt and thought I would get a job: I have an MBA, banking experience, treasury experience. Every time I sent my CV out I got not even a reply,” she said.

“People google you and they don’t like what they see.”

In letters sent to the banks and seen by DM168, Stimpel has offered to work off her credit card debt “as a clerk, filing, researcher, teller, inquiries — any work which will assist me in paying off my debt”.

Other State Capture whistle-blowers report the same difficulties in getting hired again.

“I am one of the pioneers of supply chain [management] in Africa,” said Dahwa. “I have over 25 years experience; I did my PhD in supply chain. All that has now come to a heap of nothing. I’ve applied to government and private companies: they think maybe you are not one of the good ones.”

Dahwa said he is scraping by with intermittent consulting work, but every semester he struggles to pay his children’s school fees.

I interviewed many whistle-blowers who were successful executives, who sacrificed their life savings and financial security, and have now cashed out their pensions and are living off family members. It’s very sad.

Stimpel believes South Africa’s banks should offer debt forgiveness to the State Capture whistle-blowers, not just to send a positive anti-corruption message, but because the banks “were all complicit in State Capture”.

She said: “I know, because I’ve worked in the banks, you need to follow policy. If [a client] is getting a million into their account and their salary is R50,000 a month, you need to be asking about it.”

Contacted for comment on the whistle-blowers’ plea, FNB, Absa and Nedbank all told DM168 they could not comment on individual clients’ debt situations, but assessed requests for debt relief measures on a case-by-case basis. Standard Bank did not respond to a request for comment.

A Nedbank spokesperson added: “Nedbank denies any allegations of being complicit in State Capture.”

Abba Omar, head of strategy and communications at the Banking Association of South Africa, described the debt forgiveness proposal as “interesting”, but said individual banks would be better placed to comment.

The legal framework in South Africa for protecting whistle-blowers, the Protected Disclosures Act, has long been criticised as inadequate. Unlike in other countries, it does not make any financial provision for those who blow the whistle and find themselves out in the cold.

In the US, the False Claims Act entitles individuals who assist a prosecution to receive some of the money recovered by the government as a result. Ghana’s Whistle-Blower Reward Fund works in a similar way.

Legal consultant Gabriella Razzano, who has worked extensively with whistle-blowers, said the fact that Stimpel and her colleagues are having to petition the banks for debt relief is “an indictment of the whistle-blowing system”.

Razzano said that although one might think a demonstrated desire to do the right thing would make whistle-blowers highly sought-after employees, it is often extremely difficult for them to find new jobs.

“There are certain business leaders who don’t want what they see as ‘difficult’ people in their organisations,” she said. “Others are under pressure from partners in their sector to not open their doors to people who have burned certain businesses.”

Investigative journalist Mandy Wiener, who has just published a book titled The Whistleblowers, said they are also often bled financially dry through legal processes.

“I interviewed many whistle-blowers who were successful executives, who sacrificed their life savings and financial security, and have now cashed out their pensions and are living off family members. It’s very sad,” she said.

Business ethics lecturer Athol Williams, who has not worked for a year since going public to reveal Bain & Company’s involvement in State Capture, says another aspect that is seldom acknowledged is how time-consuming it can be to be a whistle-blower.

Williams, who is due to testify at the Zondo Commission next month, said: “Being a whistle-blower sounds like a once-off: you say stuff and then you carry on with your life.”

The reality, he said, is very different.

“I had to trawl through hundreds of emails and documents to put together my affidavit [for the Zondo Commission]. I’ve had to spend hours and hours with lawyers and investigators. It becomes a full-time job.”

The financial toll of whistle-blowing is exceeded only by the emotional tax it exacts on those who go public with wrongdoing at major institutions. All the whistle-blowers who spoke to DM168 said their personal lives had been turned upside-down in the aftermath to their disclosures, which, apart from the strain of lengthy unemployment, also meant living in perpetual fear of retribution. Two reported that their marriages had collapsed as a result.

For Dahwa, the most depressing aspect of his situation is the message it sends to those wondering if they should report corruption.

“There were people across Africa who looked up to me when it comes to procurement,” said Dahwa.

“I don’t know what they think now. If you want to be a whistle-blower, do you end up being like Dr Dahwa, who lost his house and couldn’t send his children to schools of choice?” DM/DM168

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All Comments 26

  • It is time for an urgent rethink on how whistle-blowers’ basic needs can be protected ! It is disgraceful that something has not yet been done in that regard…while many of the ‘criminals’ are still ‘enjoying’ their proceeds!

  • A dedicated fund in support of whistleblowers should be budgeted for from the fiscus. Banks (and any businesses still capable) should be encouraged to contribute to it.

  • This is such an indictment on our system. How can we overcome corruption when whistle blowers are treated like this? It is shocking!
    Employers out there wake up! Do the right thing!
    And yes, there should be a State sponsored fund to provide relief.

  • This should become 100% the responsibility of Government. In private companies the company itself should be responsible for and accountable by law. There are qualified people in every nation, much more able to work out a fair solution!

  • These are precisely the kind of people we should be celebrating and desperately need more of and SHOULD be employed in State Owned Enterprises and Public Enterprises. These are our heroes!!! They need our gratitude. I am outraged and devastated.

  • A very revealing article. We certainly need to consider some form of compensation from the funds recovered, as some countries have done. Others need to be encouraged to speak up.

  • This is such a just cause every citizen should be willing contribute to a fund to support these outstanding people who are willing to stand up for the truth
    There must be a person or group who can start such a fund, crowdfunding or whatever …. the government will never do it (it will be syphoned off with elaborate schemes …. like covid or asbestos)

  • Utterly shameful. These are the very people one should be employing – courageous, principled, ethical. They are at the bleeding edge of the war on corruption. How about awarding businesses which employ such people? And what about targeted programmes to give such people legal support, and to have them provide formal insight into the circumstances they found were necessary to whistle-blow – perhaps as employees of a public/private partnership or anti-corruption centre which actively assists and educates the public, business and state institutions on corruption and its consequences.

    • 100% agree. It is a shameful indictment on SA businesses and their owners that these “courageous, principled, ethical” people cannot find employment!! SA business would be much better off if more whistle-blowers came forward, and as a result they should be encouraged to do so, not the other way round!! Setting up a fund, whether it be Government or private-sponsored, or both, sounds like a great idea!

  • The whistle blowers have been unfairly dismissed. Their cases should be fast tracked through the Labour courts and fair compensation for unfair dismissal awarded. Would it not be possible for DM to put pressure on the Labour courts by getting the necessary legal backing from the legal fraternity who could do this pro bono?

    • Support this whole heartedly. If not Pro Bono, will some organisations help?
      Is it a reflection on SA companies that these whistle blowers can’t get another job?

  • I agree with all the comments. It is shameful beyond words. Redress and a system to compensate these brave individuals needs to be implemented as a matter of priority.

  • As most, or a significant portion of, corruption in South Africa involves politics or the deployment policies of the ruling party, is it really surprising that whistle blowers suffer for their actions? Whistle blowers are not their friends!

  • If I had a place for them I would employ them all tomorrow, sadly I don’t. What a PR coup it would be for the banks to employ them and show that THEY are serious about addressing corruption so often perpetrated by their blind eyes or lack of enforcement of their own procedures, but no, they see this as a potential threat. Same can be said for the SOE’s who are so desperately in need of honest people??? Mr de Ruyter, where are you?
    I agree with the ideas below, can one of the whistle blowers start a crowd funding campaign. I for one would be happy to contribute and I’m sure my fellow Maverick citizens would too. I am so sad and ashamed for our country after reading this article.. Come on DM… use your resources and lean on your many followers and members. We can’t allow this to happen.

  • Law abiding South Africans owe a big debt to these whistleblowers. Where do we start? More publicity is needed. Law needs changing……political will?

  • This is really an unacceptable state of affairs. Surely there must be protection and recourse for these brave souls? Failing this we will see very few of the same in future and that would be a massive regression in the fight against grand corruption which is sinking our country.

  • A very sad state of affairs indeed – and for banks to deny involvement in State Capture activities is simply risible. Bear in mind that, given prevalent practices in SA, it’s not only livelihoods, but actual LIVES that are at risk. We are treating whistle-blowers very shabbily, and this needs to change!

  • Yes, we can blame the Government, but that is going to take years.
    I believe Daily Maverick must please keep the pressure on the banks, but why don’t DM start a crowd funding project. Then we can all contribute as a thank you to these brave people who saved our country from total disaster! I will contribute!

    • I agree 110% People give large sums for so many things – animal welfare; Greenpeace etc. I’m sure there are many citizens who’d be more than happy to contribute. Make the whistleblowers the trustees of their own fund would be an option. One would think that these people would be employed immediately – honesty is a very scarce commodity!!

  • In a decently run country there would be a law to protect the whistle blower and compensate them for their loss. Normally this is a percentage of the sum recovered. Unfortunately in SA they are treated as pariahs and trouble makers so no longer are accepted as competent and trustworthy employees.
    As the corruption is so deep rooted, there is no chance of the ANC Government passing a bill to protect whistle blowers so it is reliant on the private sector, especially the banks, who were all complicit in transferring the ill gotten gains out of the country.
    Time to stop the denials and help the brave citizens.

  • This is unbelievable that whistle blowers get treated this way. They are exactly the type of people who the government and private companies need to employ! They will be a tremendous asset to any employer. They should be assisted by the government by giving them a percentage of whatever monies are re couped from corrupted institutions found quilty and/or persons plus assisting them to be re employed.

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