On this International Anti-Corruption Day 2021, held fittingly under the theme Your right, your role: say no to corruption, we pay tribute to whistle-blowers. These defenders of democracy and good governance risk life and limb to expose corruption where they find it and indeed, Corruption Watch would not be able to do its work without its cohort of whistle-blowers from all over the country and from all walks of life.
Their willingness to share their experiences of corruption help us to establish what types of corruption are happening, in which areas, perpetrated by whom, and what the effects are. This in turn helps us to develop campaigns, public education material, outreach events, policy submissions, communications to government, and other interventions which empower people to stand against corruption and hold leaders accountable.
Several recent distressing incidents involving whistle-blowers have shaken South Africans’ confidence in the government’s ability to protect them, and its commitment to upholding laws that are meant to prevent them from suffering discrimination, victimisation, or worse. With this in mind, we recently hosted an anonymous survey to gauge the public’s perceptions about blowing the whistle in South Africa, with a view to improving our own services and support, and advocating for broader legislative reform.
The results of the survey are released today in our report Daring to Act: perceptions on whistle-blowing in South Africa. They reveal a vast missed opportunity and unfortunate foot-shooting on the part of the government, as our respondents indicate they are prepared to speak up – but by not creating an environment where whistle-blowers feel secure and appreciated, the fight against corruption is immediately crippled. Whistle-blowers are a crucial weapon in exposing corruption and without their assistance we will be stumbling backward more than moving ahead, because there are many people out there in possession of valuable information, but they are too scared to come forward with it.
We emphasise that because the sample group numbered just over 2 000 and though diverse, was not statistically comparable with the social demographics data presented by Statistics South Africa, we do not consider our findings to be a representative view of the South African population as a whole.
Asking people to reveal their trust in institutions, their knowledge about whistle-blowing and reporting channels, their motivations to blow the whistle and expose wrongdoing, and their views on systemic improvements that need to be made, was revealing and enlightening – and also hopeful.
Key findings of the survey include the following:
- The majority of respondents understand whistle-blowing to be the disclosure of information to the public, media, persons of authority, or investigative agencies about any type of abuse of power or misconduct, in all sectors of society. This is the view of 70% of our respondents, and it expands the somewhat narrow definition of a whistle-blower in the Protected Disclosures Act – an employee who, in good faith, discloses information that reveals illegal or irregular conduct by their employer to a regulatory authority or reporting mechanism – meaning that only employees are eligible for protection in terms of the act.
- Most respondents (around 64%) believe that whistle-blowing is important in that it constitutes a societal approach to curbing corruption and criminality and furthermore, is a civic duty. Other reasons include bringing justice to a situation where there was wrongdoing or to the person who was wronged, and to punish people who are responsible for corruption.
- Most respondents are only partially aware or not at all aware of the laws that protect whistle-blowers in the country. Only 32% of participants said they are mostly or fully aware of whistle-blower laws.
- A majority (58%) of participants say that if they had to experience corruption, crime or any form of misconduct, in either the public or private sector, they would know where to report it. An interesting point to note is that the age group 18-36 years responded most positively, while in the 66+ age group the situation was reversed.
- In terms of whistle-blower reporting channels, most respondents are aware of the South African Police Service (71%), followed by Corruption Watch (63%), and Chapter 9 institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission (48%) and the Public Protector (48%).
- However, when it comes to trusting institutions with their information, most respondents would rather approach civil society organisations with their complaints, followed by Chapter 9 bodies and the media. At the other end of the scale, the Presidency, parliamentarians and elected officials garnered the most distrust, followed by law enforcement agencies – a sad indictment on our government’s non-existent attempts to protect whistle-blowers.
- Undeterred by the risks, the vast majority of participants (76%) note that they would report corruption or misconduct in the future, if they had to experience it. The top scenarios were if they had witnessed unethical conduct but were not directly involved in the situation, or if the situation were life-threatening.
- Respondents are keen to report individuals who occupy positions of power, such as ward councillors, police officers, and business people. They are less willing to report ordinary people such as a mother who has paid a R50 bribe to get her child into a school because the next available school is 20km away, or a person who has been unemployed over a number of years and pays a bribe to secure a job.
- In terms of what would motivate people to report misconduct, the majority of respondents (73%) note that their decision would be based on a desire to bring perpetrators to account, followed by a confidence that they would be protected by the law and provided with legal, financial and mental health support. The least popular motivation was compensation.
- Respondents believe that whistle-blowers are well-meaning persons intending to do good in society, and individuals who are deserving of financial rewards/compensation for their disclosures.
- In an effort to improve whistle-blowing in South Africa, participants believe that the government should:
- Establish a whistle-blowing institution/agency that can provide legal, financial and mental health support to individuals; and
- Dedicate additional resources to law enforcement agencies to ensure that whistle-blower complaints are investigated thoroughly and perpetrators are held accountable.
Corruption Watch intends this study to be used to inform and improve systems, policies and programmes that could lead towards the eventual reduction of corruption in our society. Our recommendations are as follows:
- The Protected Disclosures Act needs to be further reviewed and amended – in particular, the definition of a whistle-blower should not be limited to individuals who are employees or workers, but be expanded to anyone who has information about wrongdoing or misconduct.
- Implement and establish an agency, in line with proposals contained in the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, to advise whistle-blowers, provide them with legal, financial and mental health support, and assess the security risks they face.
- Leading to the establishment of the above-mentioned agency, in the meantime the South African government should allocate money from the Criminal Assets Recovery Account Fund towards financially supporting whistle-blowers.
- Steps should be taken to ensure that individuals or institutions who are found guilty of intimidating or harassing whistle-blowers for their disclosures are criminally sanctioned, and/or are subject to paying personal fines towards a whistle-blower support fund, or organisations established to support whistle-blowers. Similarly, law enforcement agencies who are found to be derelict in their duty of protecting whistle-blowers should face penalties, and officials overseeing these matters held personally liable.
- Serious conversations should be held on and consideration given to compensating whistle-blowers for their acts of public service.
- All sectors of society need to take responsibility for embarking on public awareness and education programmes related to whistle-blowing, as well as actions that would de-stigmatise the act of making disclosures.