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World Whistle-blower Day is marked every year on 23 June. It’s tempting to say we ‘celebrate’ it, but in today’s world whistle-blowing is no cause for celebration – especially not for those who report and expose corruption in an increasingly hostile space.

The very fact that we need to have whistle-blowers is in itself no cause for celebration, nor is the fact that whistle-blowers often take their very lives into their hands when stepping forward to expose corruption. Retaliation against whistle-blowers can include victimisation, harassment, threats, marginalisation, dismissal, legal action, physical harm, death – and that’s just the start.

We never hesitate to celebrate the achievements and courage of whistle-blowers, however, and we praise and admire them for their willingness to do the right thing – in the face of terrifying risks to themselves.

Promises, promises

In South Africa, talk is cheap – especially talk about whistle-blower protection, and from the government of the day. In his 2022 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “We will, as the [Zondo] commission’s first report recommends, strengthen the system to protect whistle-blowers, who are a vital safeguard in the fight against corruption and who take huge personal risk in reporting wrongdoing.”

Ramaphosa added that a “detailed review of all applicable legislation” was in progress, as well as a comparative study of other jurisdictions, which was aimed at ensuring that whistle-blower protection is strengthened accordingly. In addition, said Ramaphosa, relevant law enforcement agencies are working on addressing immediate concerns about the safety of whistle blowers.

In his 2023 Sona, he said: “We are working to capacitate the Witness Protection Unit and will introduce amendments to the Protected Disclosures Act and Witness Protection Act to strengthen protections for whistleblowers.”

This was the only mention of whistle-blowers and whistle-blower protection in the entire 2023 speech.

Ramaphosa has made many such statements in past years, but to date, nothing concrete has happened – yet. However, there are signs that government is finally coming to the party.

Forward momentum in whistle-blower protection

In February 2023, speaking before the South African National Editors Forum, justice minister Ronald Lamola said: “We are working hard to tighten laws to protect whistleblowers, we are confident that the media will be important partners in this process. We need to work together to ensure that the government and companies implicated by whistle-blowers are held accountable.”

The minister encouraged the media to continue to report on “those who victimise good citizens who blow the whistle on corrupt and unethical practices.”

In May 2023 Lamola unveiled plans to create a dedicated fund to help whistle-blowers who land in financial difficulties because of their noble actions. He was participating in a parliamentary debate on the Department of Justice and Correctional Services’ 2023/24 budget.

“The department conducted a comparative analysis with other jurisdictions to ensure adequate and effective whistle-blower protection. According to our research, there are better ways to promote organisational transparency and accountability than incentivising whistle-blowers,” he said.

Government research, said Lamola, confirms what civil society, including Corruption Watch, has been saying for some time – that the Protected Disclosures Act and Witness Protection Act are not strong enough to effectively protect whistle-blowers.

Lamola also mentioned intentions to criminalise the use of threats, coercion, or force to deter would-be whistle-blowers.

It is ironic, as Daily Maverick pointed out just a few months earlier, that Lamola’s former law firm Ndobela Lamola Inc represented the National Lotteries Commission against two whistle-blowers who exposed corruption in the organisation, and the two – Sello Qhina and Mzukisi Makatse – were both fired. Three reports that the law firm prepared on the topic were rubbished and said to have contained falsified information – Lamola was a director at the time that two of the reports were submitted.

If Lamola makes good on his statements made before Parliament in May, he may just redeem himself.