Opinionista Suzanne Daniels 17 November 2019

Counting the cost two years after blowing the whistle

Two years ago, I testified in Parliament about the malfeasance at Eskom. I felt unburdened as the truth was finally out. In my mind, speaking the truth was paramount and, if I did so, someone in charge would do the right thing. Little did I know what was to follow.

I have learnt that misconduct by people in high places is a dangerous thing to reveal. After telling Parliament about wrongdoing at Eskom, I have been threatened, harassed, demonised and confined to my house for a time.

As happened with the whistle-blower in KwaZulu-Natal, statements were issued regarding the threats I received, but no support was forthcoming. I did receive action and support from the local police and my security company when it came to responding to my calls. This made me believe in humanity again. It took me a very long time to get over flinching at every sound I heard in the quiet of the night.

My own organisation shunned me in the worst way possible. I became the scapegoat and an easy target, while those who were actually responsible left without much fanfare. I was warned by the then CEO that the organisation would make my life hell and it really did become hellbent on my destruction. For a while, it succeeded.

Even with the compelling evidence I presented, and despite me having been in the boardroom at the time of certain actions, every effort was made to discredit me. The perpetrators remained free and, in some cases, their utterances were used as authority for accusations against me. I was left broken, unable to reconcile my actions and beliefs with the responses I received from powers that be – along with those of the legal fraternity from which I’d come.

A frenzy of forensic reports followed in the months after my testimony in Parliament, which, when read carefully, actually supported what I’d said. However, these reports were missing key elements as the agenda was not to support but break down my character and self-esteem. My testimony revealed how complex and nuanced the subterfuge actually was, yet the thirst for one-liner scoops remained high.

In meeting fellow whistle-blowers, I have come to learn that a common response is to focus on the messenger, to attack or smear them while never addressing or acknowledging the message. While we may be regarded as heroes from a larger society perspective, we seem to universally suffer from the decision to do the right thing.

Few whistle-blowers recover from their experience and must live in a world very different from the one they knew before they spoke up. Unemployment, being shunned in friendship and collegiate circles, feeling isolated … the reality of whistle-blowing is grim.

Journalist Tom Mueller in his recent book Crisis of Conscience states: “We live in a period of sweeping corruption – and a golden age of whistle-blowing.” This comment was made in the US context, but I do believe it can be applied to South Africa. We are certainly living in an age of sweeping corruption with degradation of the public service and other key institutions and no sense of urgency to resolve matters.

I believe the truth is paramount and will ultimately set you free. But freedom for me came at a high price. DM

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