The Price of Speaking Out

Posted in Blog

- Alison Tilley

Tlholo Phakoe is planning his father’s memorial for early next year. It will be 10 years since the death of Moss Phakoe, his father, on 14 March 2009. Moss Phakoe, a whistleblower, was assassinated.

He was an ANC municipal councillor, who had attempted to expose corruption in the Municipality. The then Rustenburg mayor, Matthew Wolmarans, attempted to have him removed three times from the executive mayoral committee, apparently because of these disclosures. Phakoe was then gunned down in his driveway.

Matthew Wolmarans and his former bodyguard, Enoch Matshaba, were arrested, charged and sentenced with his murder. Wolmarans was acquitted after serving a year of his sentence as was Matshaba. This acquittal followed one of the witnesses in his conviction recanting. That witness is now being charged for perjury.

And Wolmarans? He is now an ANC Member of Parliament. He sits on the Portfolio Committee on Human Settlements, and the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training.

And what happened to the dossier that Moss Phakoe meticulously compiled, and took to everyone he could in the majority party, including the former President Jacob Zuma at his home in Nkandla? Gone. Yet now Police Minister Bheki Cele has ordered the reopening of investigations into a series of high-profile murders, including those of Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, North West businessman Wandile Bozwana - and Rustenburg whistle-blower Moss Phakoe.

Neither the Minister nor any SAPS member has contacted the Phakoe family. They remain bereft from the loss of their father, husband and breadwinner. They were on the verge of losing their home after not being able to pay their bond instalments. The EFF stepped in and paid off the outstanding bond.

The price of speaking out as a whisteblower is high. In the workplace the remedies are based in labour law through the Protected Disclosures Act (the Act). Relatively recent amendments to the Act have extended the workplace remedies available to whistleblowers, but much work remains to be done to create a safe environment.

According to research by SALGA, more than 70% of municipal managers reported that threatening and intimidation negatively impacted on their 
work performance, while 65% saw the issue as severe enough to contemplate resignation. Of the 54 councillors who participated in the study, 66% reported being threatened, whilst 46% reported being threatened often.

According to an Assassination Witness report, a collaboration between the Centre for Criminology at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, there were 159 reported assassinations in South Africa in 2017– a figure that was up by 36% from 2016 (when 117 hits were recorded) and up by 346% from 2012 (46 hits). “There is a notable proportion who had been politicians, whistle-blowers, proprietors of taxi businesses (known colloquially as ‘taxi bosses’) and members of the legal fraternity,” say the authors.

What does all this tell us about protecting whistleblowers? Obviously, workplace protection is not enough. And reporting is a necessary but insufficient condition for the disclosure to be acted on. Many whistleblowers say their main reason for blowing the whistle is to ensure that malpractice is acted on.  In the current climate, you can hardly blame people for assuming that there is little likelihood of a conviction for corruption. We will have to think harder and better about how to help ensure whistleblowers speak out, and in the meantime ensure that stories such as that of the devastating loss of Moss Phakoe are never forgotten or brushed aside.

* A close reproduction of this article was published by our partners at the Daily Maverick.