As government’s fight against corruption gathers momentum, it is clear that the state needs to urgently review its current approach not only to witness protection, but also to the broader protection of whistleblowers.
The President made the declaration on Monday in the latest edition of his weekly newsletter in the wake of the murder of senior Gauteng Health Department finance official, Babita Deokaran, last week. Seven suspects have since been arrested for their alleged role in the assassination.
Her murder, said the President, was “a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in government and society’s collective quest to remove and eliminate South Africa’s cancer of corruption”.
“While numerous systems are in place to enable whistleblowers to report anonymously, we need to tighten up existing systems and provide greater support to those who publicly come forward with information.
“As society, we need to identify where existing laws and policies are inadequate in protecting the livelihoods, reputations and safety of whistleblowers – and work together to address these.”
“The intent of the criminals who target whistleblowers is not only to silence particular individuals – it is also to send a message to other potential whistleblowers,” he said.
Without the bravery and principled interventions of whistleblowers, government would be unable to unmask those committing corruption.
He said: “Though much focus in recent times has been on whistleblowers in the public sector, we also owe a debt of gratitude to those in the private sector whose actions receive less attention, but are equally important.”
Emphasising the importance of whistleblowers, describing them as “guardians of our democracy”, he said they raise the alarm against unethical acts and practices in government and organisations.
“They speak out in good faith and with a reasonable expectation not only that action will be taken on their disclosures, but that they will be protected and not suffer victimisation or prejudice,” he said.
Over the past three years since the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture started its work, President Ramaphosa said the country had heard of the lengths to which the perpetrators of corrupt acts had gone to conceal their misdeeds.
“It has been an extremely complex undertaking to unravel the networks of influence that enabled corruption. Among other things, vast webs of front companies were established to move funds around and disguise payments made to politically-connected individuals.”
Similar patterns had emerged in several corruption investigations by the Special Investigating Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the NPA’s Investigating Directorate and others.
As these investigations progressed and the net began to close on implicated individuals, witnesses began to be threatened, their families intimidated, being forced into hiding, and even killed, as was the case in Deokaran’s assassination last Monday.
“While we do not yet know the motive for her murder, she was a key witness in a SIU investigation into the procurement of personal protective equipment in the department,” said the President.
He commended police for apprehending seven suspects in connection to the murder. The docket has been transferred to the Hawks, and the investigation will yield further information on why Deokaran was murdered.
“Regardless of the circumstances behind this tragedy, Ms Deokaran was a hero and a patriot. As are the legions of whistleblowers who, at great risk to themselves, help to unearth instances of misdeeds, maladministration, cronyism and theft.
South Africa has extensive legislative protection for whistleblowers, including through the Protected Disclosures Act, Labour Relations Act, Companies Act, Protection against Harassment Act, and the Constitution itself.
In addition, the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, working with other law-enforcement agencies, administers the Office of Witness Protection to provide support to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in any judicial proceedings.
The President said while entering witness protection was voluntary, and neither the SAPS nor the NPA can compel a witness to do so, he said highlighted that should a witness receive threats to their life or feel unsafe, they have to inform investigators and apply for admission to the programme.
“This successful programme has played a key role in securing successful prosecutions since its inception, particularly with regards to organised crime.
“Day by day, brave South Africans like Babita Deokaran are standing firm that they will not be party to corruption and they are prepared to bear witness against it.”
He said whistleblowers like Deokaran should be saluted for exposing corruption to the harshest of glares.
“They are doing so without expectation of acknowledgement or reward. Theirs is the highest form of public service.
“We cannot let them down. We must, and we will, ensure that their disclosures result in prosecutions and do much more to ensure that they are protected from harm,” he said.
The President warned that those behind the killing of witnesses and whistleblowers would be arrested and face the might of the law, as will all who are found guilty of the very corruption these assassins are trying to cover up. –