Corruption Watch (CW) heeded the call to input into the next report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, which will be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2023. Submissions were to centre on the specific challenges faced by women human rights defenders (WHRDs) working in conflict, post-conflict, or crisis-affected settings.
With the help of Whistleblower House, our submission focused on the role of whistle-blowers in exposing state capture corruption and other types of corruption, and the risks they face, especially if they are female. We noted the disastrous impact of state capture on South Africa’s economy, which was accompanied by the increased and sometimes fatal targeting of whistle-blowers by those involved in dodgy dealings with the state.
We stated that, despite the Zondo commission’s conclusion, the same targeting of whistle-blowers continues and, in some instances, intensifies. Ultimately, due to the ongoing persecution of whistle-blowers, South Africa qualifies as a crisis-affected state.
And while President Cyril Ramaphosa promised, back in 2018, a ‘new dawn’ for South Africa which would herald a no-nonsense approach with the aim of eradicating the entrenched corruption in many of the country’s institutions, this has been slow to implement.
A dangerous but crucial role
Whistle-blowers help to expose corruption and often fight a lone battle against unscrupulous persons in the war against corruption. Their bravery adds to the task of combating, stopping, highlighting, and reporting on corrupt activities and hence they are targeted.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) support whistle-blowers directly, or advocate on their behalf for better protection from our government, as well as educating the public about the importance of whistle-blowers in our society. They fight for whistle-blowers’ human dignity, amongst other rights, as the trials they face after coming forward often extends to their families and communities.
CW, with other CSOs such as Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse and Platform to Protect Whistle-blowers in Africa, only provide legal assistance to whistle-blowers as they do not have the capacity to address other needs. This is where the Whistleblower House comes in – it partners with service providers to ensure that whistle-blowers have access to legal, health, security, financial assistance, and counselling services, among others.
Challenges emanating from state capture
State capture fraud and corruption resulted – and continues to result – in widespread whistle-blower victimisation. This includes civil and criminal persecution, loss of employment, defamation, ostracisation and isolation within their communities, financial ruin, death threats, and even assassination. Because South Africa does not have a dedicated resource or policy that can provide full-spectrum support whistle-blowers, their plight is worsened.
CSOs have noted that in their experience working with and supporting whistle-blowers, it is not only the whistle-blower themselves who get targeted, but also their family members and close friends – and whistle-blowers without the backing of a CSO are often far more vulnerable to victimisation and threats, as are those belonging to a lower economic class or an indigenous community (such as mining towns).
The staff of CSOs are also hugely impacted by these issues. Many organisations do not appreciate the real and potential risks that their personnel face, but have not yet accurately defined or calculated those risk/s.
WHRDs are particularly at risk in the unsafe physical and virtual environment in which they work. Some report that they have been followed, intimidated, harassed, sexually harassed, and had smear campaigns conducted against them by their employer, especially after seeking assistance from CSOs. We think of the brutal murder in 2021 of whistle-blower Babita Deokaran, who was assassinated in front of her home. Her killers have not yet been brought to justice.
We stated categorically that there is an urgent need for greater protection of WHRDs. Our recommendations included the role that the following must play:
- States – States must avail more funding for initiatives aimed at protecting whistle- blowers. States must also spearhead the implementation of protections for whistle- blowers; these protections must be legislated to enable accountability on the part of the state.
- UN – The UN could make greater use of its international appeal and networks to place a spotlight on the plight of whistle-blowers around the world and push for international protections of such persons.
- Civil society – South Africa enjoys a strong civil society base. CSOs have spoken out on human rights issues, gender-based violence, and women gender rights. As a possible area of improvement, there should be more co-ordination amongst CSOs and there should be consistent reporting, awareness-raising, sensitisation, and public education complete with follow up. The media must steer away from sensationalism in reporting incidences of whistle-blower victimisation.
- Community – It is noted that communities are more strongly supported from a faith- based perspective, and so are not very vocal when it comes to gender issues. Faith- based community organisation should endeavour to address the gendered realities present in their midst.
As far as international funding for whistle-blower protection activities, some CSOs have been able to access this funding, but others, especially those who offer pro-bono services, are in great need of these resources. Most CSOs are donor-funded which often creates competition for the limited available funds.
A major obstacle in the protection of whistle-blowers remains the lack of appreciation of the fact that whistle-blower issues must be dealt with holistically and not in silos.
At the same time, in South Africa particularly, there is a worryingly high rate of gender-based violence against women, and a higher rate of verbal and cyber-attacks on women journalists than on men. This number is steadily increasing.
These factors affect the outcome of the process when WHRDs seek justice for their ordeal. The criminal justice system in general is flawed in many regards and makes securing justice difficult for anyone. There is a grave shortage of effective remedies to human rights violations for gender-specific barriers women face.