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.