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Redress for victimised whistle-blowing public servants is a critical in SA

- Dr Christine Hobden

Through the State Capture Report we know that individuals received backlash in the form of malicious disciplinary hearings, side-lining and threats.

"Like many who are today called whistle-blowers, we never set out to become whistle-blowers… We were just normal human beings who knew right from wrong, regular employees who did their job with the utmost care" – Mzukisi Makatse and Sello Qhina

In a recent open letter, National Lotteries Commission (NLC) whistle-blowers, Makatse and Qhina, are seeking support and redress from the NLC, now under the new leadership of chairperson Barney Pityana and commissioner Jodie Scholz.

Many are hopeful that this new leadership will help to right the ship for a corruption-riddled NLC. Yet at the time of the publication of this open letter, they had not yet redressed the injustice faced by whistle-blowers who were key to instigating investigations into an estimated R1.4-billion corruption at the NLC.

In this letter, Makatse and Qhina draw our attention to an essential aspect of rebuilding our public institutions: acknowledging and supporting those who lost their jobs in their encounter with corrupt individuals and systems; those who faced severe consequences for doing their public service jobs in a context in which this was not rewarded but punished.

When we think of the brave individuals who have reported wrongdoing and blown the whistle on corruption, I suspect that most citizens think of high-profile individuals who, with their positions of power, had fairly extensive knowledge of wrongdoing, and voices with much public weight with which to share this knowledge.

In many of these cases there seems to come a moment for these individuals where they choose this path motivated by moral courage; reaching a point where it becomes morally clear to them that they have to speak out despite what they understand to be potentially severe consequences.

I suspect that when we think of whistle-blowers in South Africa, these are often the kinds of heroes that we imagine. And there are indeed heroic defenders of our democracy, who blew the whistle in this way, many of whom have paid a great price for doing so.

Yet, as I have engaged with more and more cases of whistle-blowing and reporting of wrongdoing, for me it has become clearer that for many, whistle-blowing feels more like something that happened to them than a path they courageously chose: Makatse and Qhina talk of “the bonfire we chose to start. Or did the bonfire choose us?”

This distinction is interesting to notice – not to undermine the bravery of these individuals or the value of what they did, but to notice that implicit often in the idea of the whistle-blowing hero is that they are remarkable individuals who are willing to and do make a choice to take up the risk.

But it strikes me that we need to decentre the image of the whistle-blowing hero, and confront this implicit assumption of heroic choice so that we can imagine and identify the full spectrum of those who resisted State Capture within the public service.

For many, we should best describe the price they paid as inflicted upon them. In the course of trying to carry out their basic functions correctly, they became whistle-blowers – for many it was not possible to do one without the other – beginning with reporting and facing barrier after barrier, ending with whistle-blowing.

As Makatse and Qhina describe: “We picked up irregularities in our work processes and decided to report these out of our normal duty of care to the employer, NLC. When the employer did not act as it should, we started to raise even more questions.”

There are too many unseen resisters who, against the emerging norms of their environment, continued to do their jobs and in doing so flagged and reported on irregular behaviour, processes and events.
Through the State Capture Report and the stories of whistle-blowers like Makatse and Qhina, we know that such individuals systematically received backlash in the form of malicious disciplinary hearings, side-lining and threats.

Whistle-blowing is most typically the final step on a long path of reporting and resisting unethical and illegal behaviour internally. We should notice then that not all who resist also blow the whistle – perhaps they are not able to bear the costs, or they do not know how to do so safely, or they cannot find a space where their voice is heard.

Perhaps they feel defeated by those who wage war against any form of resistance to the State Capture project.

Makatse and Qhina found their voice through collaboration with investigative journalism, as have many others. But South Africa’s media cannot carry this task alone.

If we are serious about reforming the public service, we need to create much more space for the typical public servant to safely tell their stories – big and small. And, as citizens, to advocate for our government to apologise for those who, in government employment, faced impossible choices, experienced humiliation, victimisation, persecution, and in many cases were pushed out of their employment.

It is a significant task to find ways to acknowledge and support these public servants, but, I think, an important aspect of reforming the public service going forward.

Alongside and within the project of professionalising the public service, the institutional culture of the South African public service needs to change. Not only do we desperately need the long-called-for protection and support for whistle-blowers, but also public servants who have long learnt to fly under the radar and watch their backs need a way to trust that things have changed (or, are at least, are changing).

One small step in this direction is to create space to explore in much more detail as a society just what this public service culture has become – what are the experiences of public servants in the everyday of their tasks? How many bore costs for resisting illicit behaviour within the everyday of their jobs, and in what ways?  

And, following this, for the government to take responsibility for these costs, offering apology and support and, in so doing, beginning to put weight behind the promise that change is coming.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.