Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 14 June 2019

In praise of the whistleblower

We are extremely fortunate to hear the many whistleblowers who have stepped up to the State Capture commissioners’ plate to tell their stories. This process has enabled the moral courage levels to rise in many, to tell it like it was at the time, even though their experiences and consequences were not as stressful and costly as that which former SAA treasurer Cynthia Stimpel had to endure.

On Monday I sat listening to Cynthia Stimpel giving evidence at the Zondo commission, wherein she detailed the crass and immoral conduct of the leadership within South African Airways who abused their authority and through their actions, placing undue pressure on the company, its staff and every taxpayer in the country.

I had heard Cynthia’s story in detail in 2016, when she informed the OUTA team of what had transpired over the preceding months. I remember how calm she was as she explained the modus operandi of the various players within the board, under the helm of Dudu Myeni, the chairperson of SAA at the time. Cynthia’s story helped formulate the urgent interdict that halted a fraudulent transaction and saved the state about R250-million at the time.

As I listened to Cynthia’s story again, I was reminded of the extent of her moral courage as she grappled the angst and fear of the consequences that she faced at the time. The ostracism from her colleagues, the threats and possibility of losing her job, combined with the loneliness that she experienced as those around her chose to look away while fraudulent activities were being overtly conducted by Myeni and her cohorts.

This week as Cynthia calmly recounted her journey; she shared the textbook actions of an effective whistleblower who stood her ground by raising the flags and using regulations, internal rules, policies and procedural correctness to trip up the wrongdoing. The brazen thuggery and gangsterism loomed large, perpetrated by a few crass board members who acted with impunity, knowing that former president Jacob Zuma and his captured prosecuting authority had their backs. Their bullying eventually saw the purging of Stimpel from her job at the airline.

The same purging tactics were applied to others who defied Myeni as she meddled deeply into the operating affairs of the airline. Sylvain Bosc, the airline’s chief commercial officer, was also removed on trumped-up charges brought against him in 2016, as was Thuli Mpshe, the acting CEO who refused to budge on issues and rules that Myeni wanted to break. SAA’s competent leadership in Nico Bezuidenhout and CFO Wolf Meyer was also placed under significant pressure to resign, opening more doors for placements that suited the corrupt contingent to plunder on their merry way.

The consequences of Myeni’s actions and that of her henchmen was the rapid decline of a state-owned airline that lost its talent, which could have returned the airline to profitability. This unruly conduct along with shocking decisions and poor financial transactions meant that Treasury has had to fork out an average an additional R5-billion a year over the past decade (with more to come), to keep the airline afloat. Imagine what these funds could have done for schools, health and safety for the poor.

South Africa has many examples of people who stood their ground and blew the lid on corruption. And the vast majority have paid a dear price for their moral action, many losing their jobs — some have lost their lives. One of the well-publicised whistleblower cases was that of Wendy Addison, who blew the lid on executives’ self-enrichment schemes within the LeisureNet group some 18 years ago. She too paid the price of having to leave the country and live in hardship for years as she struggled to find work in a foreign country.

The whistleblowing incident that sparked the biggest exposure in SA and possibly gave rise to the State Capture Commission, must be the Gupta Leaks. The lives of the brave people who encountered and exposed the hard drive of the Sahara CEO – a kingpin in the daily dealings of the Gupta empire – have also been threatened and impacted by having to relocate and experience a massive upheaval to their lives.
We are extremely fortunate to hear the many whistleblowers who have stepped up to the State Capture commissioners’ plate to tell their stories. This process has enabled the moral courage levels to rise in many, to tell it like it was at the time, even though their experiences and consequences were not as stressful and costly as that which Cynthia Stimpel had to endure.

If we are to fight corruption more meaningfully in South Africa, we need to find improved ways of protecting and rewarding whistleblowers. We need them to feel safe and proud to come forward and expose that which robs shareholders and citizens to the tune of tens of billions of rand each year.

To every whistleblower out there who have played their part in thwarting transactions that needed to be blocked, no matter how small or whether it be in the private or public sector, we salute you. We recognise your suffering, your anguish and the pain that you and your families have endured. We thank you and can only wish that we had more of you. If only we could have protected and comforted you. If only we could help you have that which you have lost returned to you, a hundred-fold. DM

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