By Cynthia Stimpel
First published in
Daring to Act

Whistle-blowing is a pro-social act that encourages, among other things, freedom in the sharing of information and the protection of human rights.

However, whistle-blowers often experience severe victimisation and retaliation in the workplace. They are treated as the pariahs of society, and often face such reprisals as threats by employers, harassment, character assassination, demotion, legal challenges, suspension and even dismissal. The majority of whistleblowers end up losing their jobs and subsequently face severe financial stress.

Reflecting on my own journey as a whistle-blower has not been easy as, I’m certain, many other whistle-blowers can attest. In one of the most horrible consequence of whistle-blowing in the history of our country, Babita Deokaran was shot several times and murdered on 23 August 2021. Her crime was speaking out on the alleged corruption involving the procurement of personal protective equipment at the Gauteng department of health in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. More recently, Athol Williams, author of Deep Collusion, and whistle-blower against Bain and Company – a multi-national corporate accused in the capture of the South African Revenue Service – has had to flee South Africa for his own safety.

There are others who still feel unsafe and unprotected, and experience financial and mental health related issues as a result: Mosilo Mothepu, Bianca Goodson, Suzanne Daniels, Altu Sadie, Ian Erasmus, June Bellamy, Martha Ngoye, Tiro Holele, and many, many others.

Reviewing the results of Corruption Watch’s recent survey as captured in Daring to Act, I can resonate with the key findings. In my own experience as a whistle-blower, I did not view myself as this “great hero”. I only did my job to the best of my ability when I saw members of the executive and the board of directors of my organisation transgressing company policies and procedures.

My first instinct was to give guidance, and then I tried to stop it from happening at various levels of our company. This resulted in my victimisation through firstly being suspended, then being charged with misconduct, and thereafter through character assassination, which led to my leaving South African Airways. The character assassination has become common reaction from senior management and perpetrators, used in both small companies and large corporates alike, and even public institutions such as schools. It makes it so much harder to defend oneself, as it is intended to undermine and discredit the whistle-blower, causing damage to their psyche.

Another element of society that plays a role in the negative publicity of whistle-blowers is the media by sensationalising their experience for the sake of headlines aimed at getting readers’ attention. I believe that the media should become more sensitive to the whistle-blower, do their investigations correctly and also encourage the principle of right of reply.

No-one wakes up and decides to become a whistle-blower. It is a process that takes time and much thinking and planning. In most cases the whistle-blower does not even know the correct steps to follow because there isn’t a proper path defined in the ordinary world of work. Furthermore, the only piece of legislation meant to protect whistle-blowers, the Protected Disclosures Act, is severely deficient and needs to be enhanced.

Whistle-blowers tend to speak out against wrongdoing out of a sense of duty to the company or to their country. We all battle with our conscience, as we decide how, and when, and to whom to report fraud or corruption.

With this said, the rising levels of illegal and unethical conduct in both the public and private sectors in our country reinforces the imperative for organisations to take active steps against corruption. These steps range from inculcating ethical values within and beyond the company and in our country, to developing processes to safeguard against individual and organisational misconduct, and more importantly, taking action when irregular conduct is discovered.

It’s in this context that organisations learn to understand that the detriment suffered by an individual who blows the whistle against corruption may go far beyond the financial impact and the loss of their job. The detail is in the personal risk they have taken, to stand up and to speak their truth. They stand to lose everything!

Studies on the mental health of whistle-blowers also show that retaliation can severely impact their emotional wellbeing, causing anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In conclusion, I would like to recommend points taken from various surveys and studies by the Gordon Institute of Business Science on what organisations can do to encourage whistle-blowing:

  1. Prioritise and focus executive attention on actively building an ethical culture that welcomes whistleblowing.
  2. Actively involve non-executive members of boards.
  3. Prioritise organisational communication and training on whistle-blowing.
  4. Make it easy and safe to blow the whistle.
  5. Take steps to avoid whistle-blower abuse and retaliation.
  6. Monitor and manage investigations.
  7. Take action against unethical conduct.
  8. Regularly communicate the outcomes of whistle-blowing management.
  9. Support NGOs dedicated to working with whistle-blowers.
  10. Honour and celebrate whistle-blowers.