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Silenced – why Babita Deokaran was murdered

Silenced – why Babita Deokaran was murdered
Babita Deokaran, a senior Gauteng Department of Health official, was gunned down outside her home in Mondeor, Johannesburg, on Monday, 23 August 2021. News24’s documentary is a summary of their coverage of the story and a tribute to Deokaran’s bravery. (Photo: Facebook)

Two years since Deokaran was assassinated outside her home for reporting a series of fraudulent transactions at Tembisa Hospital, this free-to-watch documentary on her findings stresses the protection of whistle-blowers as a lifeline to South Africa’s future.

The thankless heroism of whistle-blowers

On 23 August 2021, Deokaran dropped her teenage daughter at school, went shopping at Checkers, and drove home, where she was peppered with bullets outside her front gate. She was a 53-year-old single mother who worked a desk job and spent much of her time alone in her kitchen – there would have been numerous less theatrical ways to off her, but her killers opted for cold daylight murder on a Monday morning like any other, a public demonstration meant to strike fear in any South African would-be whistle-blowers. 

And it should scare you. What protection could you expect from the government were you to report corruption as Deokaran did? 

There’s a long answer to that question, involving The Protected Disclosures Act. The short answer is “fokol”. Whistle-blowers are often seen in South Africa as pariahs, as mpimpis (snitches) and forced to turn to civil society organisations. Prasa whistle-blower Martha Ngoye told Daily Maverick she had been victimised because of her testimony at the Zondo Commission. She was suspended, she was threatened, she was sued, and even after being found not guilty, the shadow of State Capture is still haunting her in the form of crippling debt. In the documentary she expresses little faith that she will be financially compensated as she should be according to legislation.

The documentary

News24’s documentary is a summary of their coverage of the story and a tribute to Deokaran’s bravery. It’s not particularly cinematic. There’s only so much one can do with talking heads, recycled drone shots and sped-up videos driving around the burbs. Think Carte Blanche on a shoestring. The soundtrack is a lot of eerie background noise, and one cringe-worthy weepy pop ballad at the end. 

But the film is worth your time because of the content itself. It clearly breaks down her findings, and the interviews with her family are a tragic obituary. Most importantly, it provides context for both her murder and the current state of its investigation, which has been going nowhere fast for two years. Anyone passionate about this country should want to know why this happened and what’s (not) being done about it.  

Why Deokaran was murdered

Deokaran was a key witness in a Special Investigating Unit probe into a R332-million personal protection equipment (PPE) scandal at the Gauteng health department. The State maintains that her assassination was orchestrated to prevent her from testifying. Initially News24 did not realise there was anything political about her murder, but journalist Jeff Wicks noted that she was a senior government financial official. Between her phone correspondences and thousands of Gauteng health department emails, there was a trove of evidence that Deokaran had unwittingly discovered a vast extraction network that had been siphoning Tembisa Hospital’s budget.

Deokaran had noticed that Tembisa was making much more orders than other hospitals, often for seemingly unnecessary items at inflated costs – 100 office chairs, skinny jeans or art and craft supplies to the tune of half a million rand. The figures from her actual reports feature in the documentary, often with the irritating addition of a computer glitch gimmick effect to spice up the frequent footage of spreadsheets.

Three days after the attack, six alleged hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal (five of whom came from the same valley) were arrested: Phakamani Hadebe, Zitha Radebe, Phinda Ndlovu, Sanele Mbhele, Siphiwe Mazibuko and Siphakanyiswa Dladla. Phakamani Hadebe initially claimed that former health minister Zweli Mkhize had ordered the hit and paid them R400,000 each, but then retracted the claim, and no one has yet been charged for masterminding the assassination. Although the Hawks insisted that more arrests would be made, the six are still the only suspects formally implicated in the case, and their trial has been delayed several times. The case was supposed to be heard in court on 17 July 2023, but was postponed to 7 August upon the defence lawyer claiming to be ill.

In the weeks leading up to Deokaran’s assassination, she expressed fear for her life. Her fate is not shocking, it is a symptom of a culture of government corruption. This is a root problem of our nation. The big hitters we get furious with our government about every day, load shedding, infrastructure, healthcare or whatever else, these problems are exacerbated by corruption that is able to fester because of a climate too dangerous for whistle-blowers to come forward.  

Where to watch it

Silenced: Why Babita Deokaran was murdered is free to stream for a limited time on News24. DM

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Dryden says:

    It’s obvious that the government big boys are behind this, and are being protected.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    I can tell you one thing for sure. OK actually two things. This would have been very unlikely to have occurred in this country’s parallel universe, the incredibly well-run Western Cape, in the first place, but if it had, a whistle blower would have been properly protected, and the crooks put in jail for the long time their treachery deserved.

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