Defend Truth


A simple, remunerative law that could speed up corruption-busting in South Africa


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Who would want to be a whistleblower in South Africa? The minute someone comes forward with information detailing corrupt activities by the State and/or corporates, normal life checks onto the first plane out of town. 

There are too many pages dedicated to the threats, violence and financial ruin of whistleblowers after taking a leap into the boiling cauldron of doing the right thing. And as the stakes increase, so too does the risk of harm and even death, as we saw last year in the tragic case of Babita Deokaran

Five years ago, while planning the intensive work on the #GuptaLeaks we first had to figure out how the whistleblowers would be taken care of since they would have left their livelihoods and homes in order to protect their safety. The actual work of investigating the leaks had to wait until we could raise the funding for safe passage for these brave men. 

The ripple effect of the work of these whistleblowers is that their efforts have contributed to the establishment of the Zondo Commission and the recovery of billions of rands worth of assets from Gupta-linked people and companies. And not to mention the economic impact of the seismic shift in South African politics that followed. One study put the cost of corruption at 4% of GDP from 2015-2019, per annum which would have continued without the change in regime. 

And the reward for these whistleblowers’ extraordinary service — a life in exile and an uncertain financial future.

This brings us to the law that could help speed up the rebuilding of South Africa. Given the level of risk and financial cost that whistleblowers take on, why aren’t we compensating them with guaranteed state protection and compensation based on the assets recovered? 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the US recognised the value of incentivising informers with a programme aimed at rewarding them for their courage and service — one of six different acts in American legislation that rewards whistleblowers. 

If the information provided by a whistleblower substantially contributes to an administrative or judicial action that results in the collection of proceeds, the IRS will pay an award of 15-30% of the proceeds. And the amounts can be staggering — in 2020 a single award to the value of $200-million was made off the back of information that proved to be directly attributable to enforcement action! 

Often whistleblowers work with investigative journalists to help tie together acts of corruption and build the strongest case possible. And importantly to help keep their identity from the people being exposed.  

Not only does the State benefit from this work but so too does every citizen and corporate entity. While it is unfortunate that in many cases the people whistleblowers need protection from are in government positions we can create a law that rewards whistleblowers and investigative journalism for their efforts based on a similar law used by the IRS. 

In this way, not only would we encourage more people to submit information regarding corrupt activities but we could simultaneously stimulate a revival of the journalism sector that is being crushed under the weight of economic disruption and political harassment.

If the whistleblowers and investigative media house are providing watchdog services to the State then why shouldn’t they be rewarded for the extraordinary risks that are taken on in pursuit of justice? 

Despite all that was covered in the Zondo Commission and the other inquiries over the years, we know that is nowhere near the full story. There is still so much more that could be exposed but perhaps those who have information look at how whistleblowers are treated and ask “why bother”? We can, and should, change that. 

While politics is national, it plays out at the local level — where metros can barely deliver on basic services because of corruption. Provinces and local metros have been the personal fiefdoms of too many administrators and supported by businesses willing to buy favours and contracts. In a country where 90% of our metros have qualified audit reports (mostly due to financial irregularities) a programme rewarding whistleblower and investigative journalism could be the incentive that sparks a culture shift in a society sick and sickened by corruption. 

A good starting point would be to see how much of the IRS legislation can be replicated and to get something tabled as quickly as possible. As with any new initiative, there are unintended consequences that need to be considered but if we are to make any dent into this cancer that plagues us, we need big and brave moves that can change the game. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Very good suggestion!
    Maybe consult with MPs. They can bring private member bills to the floor.
    I read that the ANC will prepare a policy document by 2032…. will have to be another party.

  • Craig B says:

    It’s a good idea but I don’t see that the current corrupt government would implement such a scheme. They haven’t convicted any corrupt people yet and it’s 5 years since the Gupta leaks

  • virginia crawford says:

    A very good idea: whistleblowers are heroes and should be treated as such. Reward money for reporting sabotage at Eskom, scrap dealers receiving copper and similar information should be paid directly and quickly. anonymously if necessary. We need every tool in the box to fight corruption.

  • Steve Smith says:

    This is not the first time this idea has been suggested, but I simply cannot see that this initiative will come from government – there are just too many people involved in fraud and corruption who would lose out big time! So how does one do it privately? I’m sure, just like many people make monthly contributions to the DM to acknowledge your good work, there’ll be folk willing to contribute to a trusted private enterprise which helps whistleblowers. Gift of the Givers…???

  • Paddy Ross says:

    The trouble with this suggestion is that it would actually go a long way towards stamping out corruption which is not on the ANC list of ‘must do’s’.

  • Dragan KostaKostic says:

    Why would one want to bust corruption when it allows big business to make billions in profits ?

  • Eric Reurts says:

    The issue with regards is that they come after the fact and depend on successfull prosecutions. So to reduce financial shenanigans here is my plan. Every purchase order placed and every cent sped monies spend at every level of government will electrncally recorded.
    Thus at the opening of every tender all documents of every bidder will be placed on line. Non compliant bids can be objected too. All awards made will be placed on line. All purchases against these awards placed on line together with payment records creatimg a complete public record. No exceptions. All other payments also electronically recorded showing request for quote, quotes, award, purchase order and payment. All salary, overtime payments via EFT only. If ” the system is down” no one gets paid, no exceptions. this will ensure quick restoration of the system.Competitors of winning suppliers, civic organisations and auditor general can thus trace every cent on line. In case of transgression the offending individuals to repay . This is an automatic administrative sanction independent of criminal investigation. Duty to repay goes from father to son ad infinitum as benefits extend to the family of the recipient. Don’t like then don’t transgress its quite simple.

  • John Strydom says:

    Yesss! So simple to implement.

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