Whistle blowing is to all intents and purposes becoming a farce Ethical view

3 July 2008

Willem Landman
Chief Executive Officer
Ethics Institute of South Africa

What do you do if you discover that your company’s successful tender to build an office complex for a government department is due to improper influence on the tender process?

Furthermore, you discover that the “cooperation” between your company and the government department extends to senior management of both institutions.

The corruption upsets you, because you know that it is unethical and illegal. Not only are tax payers harmed, but your company’s most important competitor is a family enterprise for which a successful tender means the difference between survival and having to close its doors.

Your company has an ethics code, which encourages all concerned to report unethical or illegal conduct – to “blow the whistle”.

Employees of the company are encouraged to discuss any matter with their managers, in good faith and on a confidential basis.

You feel uncomfortable, however, about discussing it with your direct manager, or the senior manager to whom she reports, because the alleged corruption extends high up into the company, and you do not know which harmful consequences reporting may hold for you.

But you also know that there are safe reporting channels that will keep your identity anonymous. You can use your company’s external reporting line, which is managed by an external service provider. And because the other party to the alleged corruption is a government institution, you can use the government’s country-wide whistle-blowing line.

Posters invite anyone who has knowledge thereof to report alleged irregularities or offences in order to promote honest management and a clean administration.

By means of these channels, we want to crack down on evils such as fraud and corruption, which eat at the wellbeing of our social system.

If you report the incident, a complete administrative and investigative process is started, with a view to action being taken against the guilty parties, which may include dismissal or legal action.

The whistle blower receives anonymous feedback on progress with the investigative process. Thereby, you are reassured that your whistle blowing does not fall on deaf ears and contributes to a better society. This helps to deter prospective offences and to track down offences that have already occurred.

This all sounds very well. The idea cannot be faulted. Objections that it encourages “informing”, an impimpi culture, do not hold water, because institutions’ and individuals’ significant interests are at stake. In the final analysis, why would one remain silent to let villains flourish, instead of letting honesty and justice triumph?

If you look at the legislation that protects whistle blowers, you would think that you would be supported and even praised if you were to report irregularities. This, however, does not always happen in the workplace.

A considerable amount of anecdotal and of detailed published evidence indicates that government officials who have to let the process work in fact sabotage it by, for example, victimising whistle blowers, instead of investigating a case.

Who knows what happens in the private sector?

Protection of pals or high-ups apparently counts more than the integrity of the process. We are creating a culture that sees whistle blowers as trouble makers, that works them out of their positions and that deters others from reporting irregularities at all.

This is illustrated by the case of a certain Mr Tshishonga, former deputy director general in the department of justice, who was responsible for the combating of corruption in the office of the master. When he became aware of irregularities arising from the department’s close relationship with a particular liquidator, he reported them to the director general and, ultimately, to the public protector and auditor general.

When no one reacted, Tshishonga issued a press statement. The department suspended him and accused him of misconduct. An agreement, in terms of which he was paid compensation in exchange for his resignation, was reached. Tshishonga then went to the labour court, which ruled in his favour on all key points.

A second illustration is that of Adv Jeanetha Brink, who was in the service of Gauteng Audit Services (GAS), the pivot on which fraud and corruption investigations at the Gauteng Shared Services Centre (GSSC) hinge. One of her duties was to take accusations about alleged offences further in order for them to be investigated and resolved.

She discovered that a number of complaints were stuck untouched in the process. In particular, nothing had been done about an accusation against very senior government officials. She was under pressure from the public service commission (PSC) and the whistle blower to show progress. Her duties, however, were quietly taken away from her, and she had to resign. After a hearing, she was admitted to be right, and she received a year’s salary, albeit after legal fees of R80 000.

What can we learn from this?

Pious commitment to anti fraud and anti corruption is a mere show unless leaders in management positions let whistle blowing work with the necessary personal integrity and political will.

If they do not do so, fools are being made of us all. In that way, a society that accepts corruption and other ethical offences as normal will in time come into being.