By Valencia Talane
People who blow the whistle on corruption should not expect a pat on the back, because it may never come. Rather, they should act from the heart, knowing that their careers, and even their lives, may veer off in an unanticipated direction.
This is the advice of Cecilia Sililo-Tshishonga, a wife and mother of two whose husband of more than 20 years – Mike Tshishonga – took the government to task in 2003 for unfairly suspending him after he blew the whistle on alleged corruption within the justice department. Tshishonga himself told Corruption Watch that he regrets nothing in his efforts, because what he did was for the greater good of South Africa and nothing else.
When Corruption Watch sat with Sililo-Tshishonga, it was to get her perspective on the impact of her husband’s actions not only on their personal lives, but on her career as well.
After coming across what seemed to be explosive evidence of corruption and nepotism in the department’s Masters Office, of which he was managing director, Tshishonga used internal channels to report it within the framework of the Protected Disclosures Act (PDA). The PDA came into law in 2000 and encourages whistleblowing in the workplace, with the protection of the whistleblower as its focus. When months went by without any sign that his allegations – which also implicated then justice minister Penuell Maduna – Tshishonga resorted to revealing his evidence in the media, a move that would prove to have dire consequences for him. He claimed Maduna had ordered him to work with a particular liquidator in a case involving the Retail Apparel Group, despite the department’s policy stating that liquidators have to bid for contracts with the Masters Office, which selects the preferred one.
Tshishonga was suspended two months after his exposé, but would spend the next two years contesting this suspension through the Labour Court in what became somewhat of an embarrassing case of government fighting one of its own. He eventually parted ways with the department after a settlement agreement was reached between the two parties and he was compensated for the hardships he endured.
According to Whistleblower: The Mike Tshishonga Story, the book that recounts his journey, the Court ruled in early 2004 that he be reinstated, but then director-general Vusi Pikoli refused to do this and opted for the settlement instead. In a 2007 interview with Moneyweb, Tshishonga said he had actually been coerced into settling, after the department’s attempt to appeal the Court’s ruling had also failed.
Asked if settling – instead of continuing to fight – did not undermine his efforts in his fight for justice, Tshishonga said this was not at all the case. “Because I didn’t do anything wrong and the court had cleared me, I was not prepared to be disadvantaged as far as my benefits were concerned. So the settlement was more about that than anything else.”
It was clear the department was not prepared to take him back, he said. “By the time of the settlement, there was a new director-general and a new minister.”
Although he was still deployed in the office, he was not given tasks to do and his old functions had been diverted to another unit. Fighting to keep his job was not really an option and when he sought other job opportunities both within the department and outside of it, Tshishonga says it was clear that he faced an uphill battle in securing another job.
Guilty by association
Just before going public with his evidence, Tshishonga had shared his plans with his wife and two teenage sons. Sililo-Tshishonga recalls how determined he was to go ahead with his plans. “It was very short notice, the kind of situation where you couldn’t even say no. Mike was resolute, his mind was made up. There was no turning back.”
For her, however, there was no protection against discrimination in the workplace. At the time of her husband’s suspension, she was chief of staff in a ministry that she avoids naming. “When I joined the ministry, I developed a public service office manual that everyone across the board could refer to in order to work efficiently. It was exciting because I had developed a niche for myself in executive support.”
She acknowledges that at first her husband’s case did not pose an immediate threat to her own job, but with time it became clear that her presence in the office of the minister was starting to bother some people. “There had been some dodgy incidents in the office for some time, but I had resolved that as long as I was not appending my signature to anything improper, my conscience was clear and those involved could go on and do their business.
“I think she [the minister] became very uncomfortable after Mike’s story, and thought if my husband could do that at the justice department, I could probably do the same in her office.” The minister issued an instruction to Sililo-Tshishonga’s superiors to “see what you can do with this woman, she is an embarrassment in my office”. The minister allegedly referred to Tshishonga’s “public spat with a comrade in the Cabinet” and questioned the couple’s loyalty to the ANC, of which they had been members for many years.
“I was taken from my office to the legal services unit to fill a position that was six levels below mine.” For the next six months, she said, she would just sit in her office from 7:30am to 4pm and do nothing. “It was painful because I’m the kind of person who checks at the end of every day what I’ve achieved, how badly I did and so on. At the end of the month I should feel that I’ve earned my stay there.” She too eventually reached an agreement over her departure.
Trouble back home
Things were not looking good at work, but Sililo-Tshishonga’s strength would be needed most at home. With the highly publicised case, and its implications of high-ranking public and political officials, the Tshishongas started receiving death threats and soon had to move house for their own safety. "We had to move out of a home I really loved, sell very quickly and move into a secure complex,” she recalled. “You don’t even get the real price or value of the property when you move that abruptly.”
Her boys, who were in grades nine and 11 at the time, had to be escorted practically everywhere, including school. “You could see they were bewildered, with their world being changed and shaken. It wasn’t easy.
“The eldest had to repeat grade 11 because he was affected negatively by what was happening and at some point he was suicidal. So I had to be psychologist and mother; I had to always watch out for signs of depression.”
She became alert, watching what the boy was doing, where he was going. If he delayed coming home from school she would go out to look for him because she was worried about what was happening with him.
Sililo-Tshishonga is careful to protect her sons’ identity in public as well, a long-standing decision to keep them separated from their father’s now public profile and the negativity it always seemed to attract. She recalls a time when they were not even going out and didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere. It took her elder son, she said, a long time to find himself again.
“This year he graduated after studying human resources and is now in a learnership programme. I’m happy now that I see where he’s going – for a long time it was touch and go and we had to be sensitive around the boys.
“They felt their father shouldn’t have done this, he should’ve just kept out of it and stayed quiet. When things went wrong they blamed him and I had to say to them no, he had to do it. Someone had to speak up.”
For her younger son, the journey towards happiness still continues. After matric he studied architecture at Wits University, but did not complete the course. “He loves his sport, so he hopes to go for sports science or sports management at TUT next year.”
And what of her relationship with her husband?
Although there were times when she resented his actions, Sililo-Tshishonga was quick to correct herself and remember the bigger picture: it was necessary for someone to stand up against wrongdoing in a public office as important as the justice portfolio. “I told myself that he saw danger and acted. When you look at what is happening now, things have been left to ruins.
“There were points where I questioned it and thought ‘by now I could’ve had this or that’, but again I’d call myself to order and tell myself someone had to do this. Who else? The man next door? Why not MY man?”
In Whistleblower, Mike writes: “…If our lives move away from what is familiar to our family… they become frightened… They think that we will leave them. They may use their fears and concerns as a reason not to support us…”
A firm commitment
To her surprise, one piece of advice she received from an unlikely source, the minister who discriminated against her, was for her to divorce Tshishonga to save her own career. “I wondered if people understood that I didn’t take my vows lightly. They were not only made in front of the people who were at our wedding, but in front of God as well, so how do I turn back from something I’ve committed myself to in that way?”
Sililo-Tshishonga has been rejected for jobs by several government departments for the past 10 years, and still struggles to come to grips with that. “Whenever I would go for interviews, they’d say “There’s no way something like that could happen in government, you were fired”, and I would have to insist that wasn’t so.
Despite all that she has experienced over the past decade, Sililo-Tshishonga remains adamant that she will always stand by her family to provide them with the support they need. The four of them have had to adjust to a new standard of living that they had not planned for. Their support structure, in the form of friends and family, has been solid throughout.
“We’ve managed with the support of our few genuine friends,” she said. “That was important because our experience showed us who was genuine and who wasn’t.”
As for the fight against corruption in South Africa, she reckons the journey has only just begun. “We have a mountain to climb, and I think we need some form of re-education and re-armament. That way we can show people it’s not all about driving this fancy car. Yes, go ahead and drive it, but spend your own money!”
Was it worth it?
There is no doubt in Tshishonga’s mind that the process of blowing the whistle was worth it. He argues that none of it was done for selfish reasons or for personal gain, because at any point he felt he could lose his job. “For the greater good, however, it was worth it,” he says.
“The case received a lot of publicity, the point of this being that it was important to show people that we must not keep quiet when things go wrong. It does not matter how high the person involved is.” He argues that at the end of the day, the actions of both the wrongdoer and those of the person who witnesses the wrongdoing will affect a lot of people. “The publicity also helped open the eyes of those who were timid and showed them that it can be done.”