Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

We need to protect whistle-blowers at institutions of higher learning to stop the rot of corruption

We need to protect whistle-blowers at institutions of higher learning to stop the rot of corruption

Corruption at South Africa’s tertiary institutions is as prevalent as it is in government and the private sector, which puts the futures of students at risk due to the poor quality of education provided. A commitment to unadulterated ethical standards of accountability is the only way to break the cycle.

The recent assassination of Babita Deokaran, the acting chief financial officer in the Gauteng department of health, in yet another act of eliminating a whistle-blower who reported corruption, has shaken us all. 

This murder came against the backdrop of the current state of South Africa’s government, where corruption is ubiquitous in almost every ministry, state-owned enterprise and municipality. 

Some might think: “That would never happen at our sites of higher education because that is where learned, accomplished and ethical persons engage in lofty thoughts and cogitate on finding solutions for society.” 

However, one needs to be reminded that a professor at a higher education institution who uncovered a degrees-for-money racket was eliminated by contract killers.

Many nefarious acts, in defiance of the rules and regulations of higher education institutions and the law, have occurred, and continue to occur daily. Higher education institutions are not exempt from corruption and any potential whistle-blower is under constant threat. Several choose to remain silent because the price of speaking out is too high.

Litigation as a weapon

“Lawfare” is the common strategy where the institution litigates the whistle-blower into poverty with the aid of taxpayers’ money. Often charges are concocted with mere allegations, not proof, of financial mismanagement or sexual harassment, for example. This is guaranteed to grind an academic career to a halt, because an accused can never rebound from such accusations, even if no tangible evidence is ever proffered. 

This fact can offer insight into why personnel at higher education institutions did not blow the whistle in the instances discussed below.

Is it possible for a student to be overpaid by millions as part of financial aid from the state? 

Students regularly accuse higher education institutions of financial maladministration at the start of every academic year before protests erupt. Is there any truth to these accusations? Cases where money exchanged hands for places in medical and other schools have been reported, but continue to go undetected. 

All institutions churn out policies that are seldom implemented. For example, is it possible to secure permanent employment as an academic, under institutional human resources policies, without an interview? Apparently yes, if you come into the institution as an adjunct or a temporary lecturer who impresses the line manager. 

Everyone has heard about “transactional” passes at institutions of higher learning, usually in exchange for money or sex, as academics exploit the opportunities their power offers them. These continue to be rife despite the existence of numerous institutional policies. Some directors of institutions set up to investigate sexual harassment made findings of no wrongdoing when a colleague, who assists them with delivering lectures at conferences, was alleged to have committed an offence. If the sexual harassment process is not transparent, it is a useful weapon to use on those deemed “troublesome”. 

Fruitless inquiries

Another institution, it is alleged, ignored the marking of examination papers with the “assistance” of students. After an institution appointed two commissioners for an inquiry into leaked exam papers allegedly typed by support staff, the inquiry ground to a halt when it was discovered that they always type the papers of one of the commissioners. There are also countless allegations of marks being rigged for a price.

It is unclear whether the various policies on sport, finance, examinations or human resources are injunctions to be implemented or mere guidelines. Often these are flouted with impunity, or the line manager avoids implementation because it would be too burdensome to do so. It is easier to look the other way in the name of collegiality, or plain indolence. 

Then there are cases of students passing without even being registered for a course or degree. “How is this possible?” I hear you ask.

Would a leader at one of our foremost higher education institutions appoint a trusted friend as a professor? What if that friend had previously applied for a professorship at that same institution and the selection committee found him to be unappointable? All that leader would have to do is occupy the chair of the next selection committee (which he would not ordinarily do) and make a “disclosure” of the relationship. This signals the choice of the “boss” that everyone in that committee immediately understands.

The boss’s pal would now be in charge of all the schools in that faculty, including the school that found him to be unqualified to be a professor. Is this not cadre deployment, as practised by the current government, more commonly known as jobs for pals? 

Deep pockets

In time the obvious becomes apparent, as the appointee struggles to decide on a string of important matters, such as lecturers not marking exam papers on time, being absent without leave or recovering millions from unpaid academic debt. 

If this lack of ability and diligence is reported to a line manager, negative consequences are certain to follow. With deep pockets of state funds, university leaders bide their time and gather some allies to get rid of any “ingrate” or “troublemaker”. An example is made and dubious charges are manufactured and broadcast, and the whistle-blower is threatened into silence.

These actions are a replication of the practice at all levels of governance, whether in the private or state sector. It is not surprising that these practices are found in institutions of higher learning as their leaders plot their next move up the career ladder using state funds as their personal litigation chest. 

With the actual or tacit consent of councils and senates, corruption has been endorsed. To the best of my knowledge no audit has yet been undertaken at any institution of higher learning of the abuse of state funds to purge “troublesome” colleagues. This is a perilous situation for any whistle-blower.

A manager looking away rather than doing the right thing constitutes corruption funded by taxpayer money. As accountability is non-existent in many institutions, in one instance the delivery of lectures came second to the opportunity for television interviews, it is alleged. Lectures were cancelled so that an egotistical five minutes of fame could be grabbed. 

Buying the ‘piece of paper’

At some institutions of higher learning there is daily fraud committed upon highly disadvantaged students who are complicit in the acquisition of the “piece of paper” qualification without any knowledge having been gained. They are aware that no real evaluation to establish their competence or skill was completed by their lecturers.

This collusion always delivers the same outcome as they are consigned to the burgeoning dump of unemployable graduates in the country. They will never report a lecturer for not doing the work if an 80% or 90% pass was guaranteed. How is this pass rate even possible when the students are drawn from arguably the worst high schools in the country where 30% secures a pass?

In the same way children play “house”, some institutions are playing “university” or “college”. Surely, to those who are, or have been, this disadvantaged there is a higher duty due than guaranteed disappointment and disillusionment for the rest of their lives.

Some might say it is petty corruption when an individual takes a few sheets of photocopying paper for the printer at home. Grand corruption may occur when all the documents for a court case are copied on the institutional copying machine. If there are no consequences, all corruption will be dismissed as petty or “normal”. What if case files from the law clinic make their way, with alleged regularity, into the law firm of a lecturer? If the line on ethics gets blurred, touting will become a regular practice. How will it be possible to produce the ethical law graduates the Council on Higher Education and the Legal Practice Council require if this is the behaviour of their lecturers?

What if some academics still miss the good old days, and 27 years after freedom in South Africa continue to have segregated staff rooms? Surely, one of those esteemed academics acclaimed for human rights articles or books, whom the Constitutional Court quotes regularly, or who is a recipient of international awards, would have noticed this obvious (and illegal) practice at their institution? Not likely, especially if they believe this to be the accepted norm. 

Gatekeepers of privilege

Questions of privilege and race never enter the mind of those accustomed to a certain way of life, even though the actions are unlawful. In such instances there is a yawning gap between one’s academic profile and social behaviour. Special veto groups made up of the most senior and previously advantaged act as gatekeepers in many matters, especially the promotion of mainly black colleagues. 

Failure to abide by the will of this “Ku Klux Klan”, respected professors by day and stereotypical bedsheet- and pointed-hat wearers by night or the weekend, is certain to invite severe repercussions. Unethical institutional leaders have been known to collaborate with such people to rid themselves of a common problem.

Moonlighting by academics is common. The abuse of leave in some institutions is rife as some complete the requirements for practice while employed in their lecturing jobs. Others run a full-time business or practice while being full-time lecturers. No consequences are likely to follow. If you have the support of your academic staff association or union, you will be untouchable. Indeed, such actions are justified because “everyone’s doing it”. Is forgiveness for unethical behaviour not the path to normalising corruption?

In one institution the person hired to chair disciplinary cases needed the support of the staff association to extricate himself from liability for institutional debts. Not surprisingly, accused members of that staff association were seldom found guilty, even in the most iron-clad cases. Again, there were no consequences.

The Protected Disclosures Act requires an employee to disclose information regarding unlawful or irregular conduct by their employers or other employees. Conduct that does not follow the policy of the institution may be considered irregular. If a full dossier, with supporting documents containing several allegations of “unlawful or irregular” conduct, is delivered to the line manager, such an action will accord with that act. 

Toothless act

In such instances, some institutions will not respond immediately with vengeance against the whistle-blower. Instead, they are likely to bide their time and gather disgruntled persons and “evidence” to ensure they make a solid case against the whistle-blower. Most of all, they will certainly erase any connection between whistle-blowing and their subsequent disciplinary action through multiple spurious charges. That makes the Protected Disclosures Act lame in future action because the nexus cannot be easily proven. 

The response of management in these cases is shameful. The engagement of high-priced law firms by some institutions, which are not accountable to the public for their use of taxpayer money, makes a mockery of the equality of arms principle. Others use the non-disclosure agreements in settlements as a bludgeon against any future litigation. For these reasons calls for the act to be amended are not misplaced.

The achievement of a nobler goal, beyond selfish opportunism, must drive higher education decision-making. All the sanctimonious rhetoric of leaders of such institutions needs to move to a tangible and transparent commitment to unadulterated ethical standards of accountability.

Without the protection of whistle-blowers in our institutions of higher education, they will continue to deliver poor, or limited, education to future leaders. So, the cycle of corruption will be perpetuated and ingrained. DM/MC

Professor Gaudeamus Igitur is a nom de plume. The writer is a former faculty head at a South African university.

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  • jcdville stormers says:

    I agree fully.Having been a whistle blower in SAPS,I can testify that those that are supposed to applaud you for your integrity are the ones that rather protect the corrupt and would rather transfer you ,charge you on cases of misconduct (that you don’t get informed about or charged ,but it is on your file on the computer and if you apply for a transfer to another branch or unit ,you don’t get it because it looks like you are a problem worker).I testified against corrupt cops , never got protection.As I kept meticulous records and had a few good senior cops on my side I survived this onslaught ,also I had the community on my side if I was side lined they put up such a noise that the station commander had to put me back where I was best and could tackle corruption as well.Whistleblowers need full protection, but if it will materialize is another question.

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