Silence is golden – or so goes the expression, but at what cost does it come in the face of rampant corruption? This is the question three South Africans may have asked themselves as they took the risk of deliberately exposing rot in government structures.
All three must have known that their whistleblowing could have grave consequences, yet they refused to let fear decide their fate.
Corruption Watch lauds these three courageous individuals – the late Moss Phakoe and Alfred Motsi of North West and Limpopo’s Solly Tshitangano – who forced their way against the tide in pursuit of justice and the truth.
“We celebrate these men for choosing courage over silence, for inspiring others to do the same and for recognising that silence amid corruption is, indeed, consent,” says Corruption Watch director David Lewis.
Through Tshitangano’s tireless two-year battle, the education crisis in Limpopo came to light, while Phakoe and Motsi helped expose the writhing tentacles of corrupt power and politics in Rustenburg municipality.
Phakoe was killed for his actions, but today the voices of Tshitangano and Motsi ring out, calling on other South Africans to speak up, reject corruption and expose the guilty so that whistleblowing becomes an action of the masses, not isolated individuals.
North West’s undoing
For Phakoe and Motsi it began years ago when a new municipal vehicle disappeared without a trace from the local fire station, despite there being 24-hour security and CCTV cameras.
According to Motsi, the cameras were suspiciously switched off around the time the car went missing and there was no sign of a break-in.
Two months later two more state vehicles disappeared.
It was after these incidents that the two suspected foul play and began scrutinising the conduct of the then Rustenburg mayor Matthew Wolmarans.
As disciplined and loyal members of the ANC, the two councillors were determined to uphold the Constitution and rid the municipality of rot.
The lack of service delivery and Wolmarans’s disinterest in developing Rustenburg exacerbated the case and the two decided to take action.
The two began compiling dossiers and submitted them to ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and President Jacob Zuma. In the end they were able to directly link Wolmarans to 20 cases of corruption.
“We knew we were going to be killed and we also informed the police about it,” said Motsi. “I had to move from one place to another. I was changing cars.”
Motsi explained that although he took precautions, Phakoe did not go into hiding because “he was a true Christian who believed that God would protect him”.
In the years following Phakoe’s murder, Motsi went “underground”, where he continued his fight. “I didn’t care whether I was going to die or not. I just told myself that if they kill me, so be it because they knew where I was all the time.”
His house was broken into a few times and his car tyres were punctured. He told Corruption Watch that some documents and three laptops that had information pertaining to the alleged corruption were also stolen from his house. In the end, he had to get creative and store information in different places to ensure it was safe.
A few weeks ago on 17 July, three years after Phakoe’s death, justice was finally achieved when his murderers, Wolmarans and Enoch Matshaba, were sentenced to 20 years and life in prison respectively.
But Motsi holds that justice would have been truly served if both men got life terms.
He added that there were six people involved in Phakoe’s death. Initially four people were arrested, although charges against the other two were dropped. The remaining two out of the six were never arrested.
“But half a loaf is better than nothing, he said.
Motsi believes that if Mantashe had responded to their findings, Phakoe would still be alive – but instead of following up, Mantashe called them “troublemakers”, he claimed.
To this day, the allegations have not been addressed, Motsi added.
‘Stand up and be counted’
“Corruption Watch assures the public that the identities of individuals who report corruption to the organisation will not be revealed without their permission, to ensure their safety,” said Lewis.
The matter of whistleblowing is two-fold: “Firstly, whistleblower protection has to be strengthened, but secondly, as with any attempt to confront major social problems, people have to stand up and be counted.”
“Moss Phakoe stands in the tradition of the volunteers in the Defiance Campaign and of those workers who, at considerable risk, formed unions in the early 1970s. He stood up not for himself, but for his people and the greatest tribute to his memory is to follow his example and to use the space that he has opened for all of us.”
Limpopo’s lone voice
Solly Tshitangano, who was victimised and eventually dismissed from his post for exposing irregularities in the Limpopo textbook tender, believes whistleblowing is vital.
“I think as people of South Africa we have an obligation – if we don’t expose corruption or we don’t deal with it, people won’t get service delivery,” he said. “Most of the millions that are being wasted away are supposed to be used for service delivery.”
Resources are not being used to serve the people, but instead are serving individuals, he added.
He does, however, admit that exposing corruption can be risky.
“You just need to guard yourself. Obviously if the authorities wanted to shut me up, they should have killed me before the evidence was out, then they would have succeeded in covering things up. If they kill me now, all eyes will be on them.”
Tshitangano believes that more whistleblowing could happen if authorities encouraged citizens to report incidents of corruption, theft or fraud.
In Tshitangano’s case it was part of his job in the finance division to advise the head of Limpopo’s education department about tender irregularities.
Dissatisfied with the way that chapter nine institutions such as the auditor-general and the public protector have dealt with his case, Tshitangano said that if action had been taken earlier by both bodies, the Limpopo textbook tender would have been cancelled a long time ago and no money would have been paid to unscrupulous suppliers.
“We can only win this war against corruption if the authorities play their role and if institutions do the same. Then citizens will also play their role.”