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Impunity: The nemesis of accountability


Gabriella Razzano is the Executive Director of OpenUp ( and an Atlantic Senior Fellow in Social and Economic Equity. She also acts as legal consultant and researcher, focused on issues of transparency, open data, technology and law.

A whistleblower from inside the UN, Anders Kompass, has resigned over the organisation’s failure to hold senior officials to account. This follows his disclosure of a report that detailed the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in Central of African Republic (CAR), which the UN had refused to take action on. The release of the report resulted in his suspension. In quitting, he spoke of the complete “impunity” for those who had committed the various wrongs revealed in the report, and how this culture meant he could no longer remain within such a tainted structure.

Impunity is accountability’s cursed enemy. It is a disturbing trend to see disclosures by whistleblowers patently ignored, even in the face of the immense sacrifices whistleblowers take to make them. And the sacrifices cannot be underplayed – they include loss of work or even, so tragically, loss of life. They might become alienated from colleagues, strained from their families, or isolated in their communities.

And the disclosures they make can change the fate of the world, not just the fate of a company. Whistleblowing and tip-offs are cited as responsible for the detection of 24% of the most serious economic crimes in South African organisations; the Panama Papers were a whistleblowing leak that shook the news and our perceptions of international finance; and Edward Snowden revealed to us the reality of mass surveillance, and the state of international politics, through his leak.

Yet, so often, nothing happens as a result of these disclosures. The Open Government Index was quite positive about South Africa’s state of government, but it is notable that we performed worst at the level of sanctioning officials for misconduct than in other areas. We lack accountability. Corruption and wrongdoing go unpunished. I am reminded of a quote that I have noted before, by Robert Klitgaard, which states:

“Corruption = Monopoly Power + Discretion – Accountability”.

For whistleblowers, this is of course immensely frustrating, but also despairing. Moses Phakwe, the son of murdered whistleblower Thlolo Phakwe, noted in a 2015 publication we produced:

Several attempts were made by my father and other comrades to expose corruption but it all fell on deaf ears… My father was a brave man to do what he did.”

This culture of impunity creates distrust in the institutions supposedly put in place to protect us. But, perhaps more important, it is a slight on those who have tried to do what is right.

What can we do? The first step of course is that people in positions to act on disclosures do something about them. The current amendments before Parliament on the Protected Disclosures Act (our whistleblowing law) will include obligations on people who receive disclosures to act on those disclosures, and report back to whistleblowers on the actions taken.

But is there something the rest of us can do – those on the outside of disclosures looking in? I would suggest we begin becoming just as resilient as those who resist disclosures. We begin becoming stubbornly protective of those who make disclosures, and repetitive about the need to take action by those that don’t. We become a community around the whistleblower, when action isn’t taken elsewhere. Bernard Banisi, the brother of another murdered South African whistleblower Xola Banisi, noted:

He was a voice where there was no voice. He was a lone voice. Nobody protected him.”

Adding our voice to the voice of the whistleblower at least goes some way to protecting them from victimisation and, quite simply, is the right thing to do.

And for those who do nothing, we hold them to account. So, when Susan Malcorra – one of those officials who failed Kompass after his disclosure – attempts to stand as a replacement for UN Secretary-General, we remind the world how inappropriate it would be for her to head an organisation essentially designed for advancing accountability.

When Mark Barnes, the CEO of the South African Post Office, “gets his hands dirty” trying to turn the failing parastatal around, we remind him that the first step to doing so would be not to flippantly deride those whistleblowers that could help him do this. And when our Parliament choses not to hold our president to account for his constitutional failures, even when the Constitutional Court confirms the failure, we simply never let that accountability conversation die. DM


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