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SA citizens are due some answers about what the state is doing to implement State Capture recommendations, says Moseneke 

SA citizens are due some answers about what the state is doing to implement State Capture recommendations, says Moseneke 
From left: Slain whistleblowers Babita Deokaran, Marumo Phenya and Jimmy Mohlala were honoured at the inaugural Whistleblowers Awards on Thursday, 26 October. (Photos: Facebook; Twitter and Mpumalanga Commuter)

Former deputy chief justice calls on the state to protect whistleblowers as inaugural Whistleblower Awards celebrate journalists, rights defenders and media houses for their dedication to building a corruption-free South Africa.

The Inaugural Whistleblower Awards on Thursday, 26 October, was a star-studded event, featuring the likes of retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and newly minted Public Protector Kholeka Gcaleka. But the true stars of the lavish gala dinner were the journalists, active citizens, civil society organisations and media houses that risk their lives and livelihoods in the name of justice.

Public Interest SA, an organisation that advocates for ethics, social justice and transparency in South Africa, with sponsorship from Eskom, gathered whistleblowers from various sectors of South Africa at the Venue in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, to honour them for their dedication to the truth.

Kicking off the gala, the master of ceremonies, Competition Commission head of communications Sipho Ngwema said that as the nation grapples with unmitigated levels of corruption and lawlessness, the individuals who speak out against injustice and corruption are met with unimaginable threats to their lives and well-being.

“Their pursuit of truth and justice should be commended and not condemned. Today, we come together not only to recognise and honour those brave souls but also to shed light on the systematic issues that plague our society. We must confront the culture of silence and fear that allows corruption to fester, undermine our democracy and hinder our progress as a nation,” Ngwema said.

South Africa is ranked 72 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In tandem with the high levels of corruption, whistleblower protection in the country lags far behind global standards and often inadequately protects people who speak out. 

Remembering the fallen

The pitfalls of whistleblower protection are evidenced by the assassinations of Babita Deokaran, Jimmy Mohlala and Marumo Phenya, who were honoured posthumously at the gala dinner with the Fallen Heroes of Integrity Award. The gala dinner attendees observed a moment of silence to honour their sacrifices.

Deokaran, the former chief director of financial accounting at the Gauteng Health Department, was shot 12 times in the driveway of her home after exposing corruption worth R850-million at the department.

Mohlala was the former Speaker for the City of Mbombela. In 2009, Mohlala was ambushed and killed outside his home, just as he was due to lay criminal charges related to dodgy tender deals for the R1.2-billion Mbombela Stadium under construction for the 2010 World Cup.

Most recently, in November 2022, businessman Phenya was gunned down in his car in Roodepoort after blowing the whistle on a dodgy R119-million tender at the Department of Home Affairs.

Deokaran, Hohlala and Phenya are just three examples of the potential cost of whistleblowing in South Africa. The death toll is far higher, with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime revealing that whistleblowers accounted for many of the 1,971 counted assassinations in South Africa between 2000 and 2021.

Unsung heroes honoured

Scorpio journalist Pauli van Wyk (fourth from left) was awarded the Investigative Journalism Excellence Award with two other journalists at the inaugural Whistleblower Awards on Thursday, 26 October. (Photo: Lerato Mutsila)

In addition to the whistleblowers who tragically lost their lives fighting corruption, the many who still live among us were also celebrated. The awards spanned several categories, including Individual Whistleblower Excellence, Civil Society Champion, Investigative Journalism Excellence (individual and media house) and the Sherpa Award for Whistleblower Support.

The people recognised in the Individual Whistleblower Excellence category included Tiro Holelo, Themba Maseko, Patricia Mashele, Mosilo Mothepu, Martha Ngoye, Cynthia Stimpel, Johann van Loggerenberg and Athol Williams.

Williams could not accept the award in person as a result of ongoing threats after testifying in the State Capture Commission about high-level corruption implicating management consultancy firm Bain & Co. He was forced to leave South Africa out of fear for his life.

Read in Daily Maverick: Athol Williams: ‘I will continue whistle-blowing and making the corrupt uncomfortable’

In the Civil Society Champion category, the Active Citizens Movement, Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Corruption Watch, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse and Whistleblower House were recognised for their tireless efforts in promoting transparency and accountability.

In the Individual Journalism Excellence category, Scorpio’s own Pauli van Wyk and amaBhungane’s Susan Comrie were honoured for their relentless reporting on corruption and maladministration in the public and private sectors.

Jeff Wick (News24|), Daniel Steyn (GroundUp), Marecia Damons (GroundUp) and Sabelo Skiti ( Sunday Times) were also recognised in this category. 

Publications honoured in the Investigative Journalism Excellence Award for media houses included amaBhungane, Scorpio, GroundUp and News24. 

The Sherpa Award For Whistleblower Support was given to Ben Theron (Whistleblower House), Cynthia Stimpel (Whistleblower House) and Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa.

Lastly, former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Mandonsela was awarded the 2023 Public Interest SA Chair’s Special Award for Social Justice. While Madonsela was not at the gala dinner to accept the award, Gceleka received the reward on her behalf.

Speaking about the event’s significance, Ngwema said: “We have come together, not only to honour those exceptional individuals but also to renew our collective pledge to fight corruption and protect the rights and lives of those who dare to speak up. Through our collective efforts, we can build a South Africa where truth and justice prevail, where whistleblowers are celebrated as heroes and heroines rather than as silent victims.”

Corruption Watch, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse and Whistleblower House were recognised in the Civil Society Champion category at the inaugural Whistleblower Awards on Thursday, 26 October. (Photo: Adila Chowan /Twitter)

Whistleblower protection

In his 2023 Sona address, President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed that the government was working on strengthening whistleblower protection by introducing amendments to the Protected Disclosures Act and Witness Protection Act.

However, in his keynote address at the Whistleblower Awards Gala dinner, Justice Moseneke questioned the move, asking whether we needed more legislation. 

“Several academic reviews of our current whistleblowing legislation suggest that our laws, but for a few gaps, are as good as any across the globe. We’ve had whistleblowing legislation for 23 years since 2000 when the Protected Disclosures Act was passed. 

“Are we, as a country, not due for a detailed account by the Minister of Justice, by law enforcement agencies and other entities? Of the executive arm of state, on what has happened in the terrain of fighting corruption, whistle-blowing and witness protection since the inception of the legislation up to the present time, even before we adopt more laws in the area,” Justice Moneseke asked.

He asked how it was possible that despite the elaborate and multiple laws in place to fight corruption, there was no visible stemming of the tide of misappropriation of irregular expenditure and corruption.

The retired deputy chief justice called on the state to not only protect whistleblowers but also to take their reports seriously, highlighting the fact that while many incidents of corruption and impropriety had been exposed, a fraction of the cases reached the courts. 

“What is the point of blowing one’s whistle into the vast darkness when nobody hears, nobody listens, and most probably nobody cares? My esteemed colleague, Chief Justice Zondo, released findings of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture on corruption and fraud in the public sector around October last year.

“A year later, are we as citizens not entitled to specific steps the government has planned or taken to implement the outcome of that ambitious and, I might add, expensive inquiry and its findings on impropriety or is the report likely to gather dust and nothing more?” the judge asked. DM

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